Unsplash Updates its License, Raises GPL Compatibility Concerns

Unsplash.com, a site that provides high-resolution photos for free, updated its license and the change has people in the WordPress community concerned.

Prior to the change, Unsplash’s license stated the following:

All photos published on Unsplash are licensed under Creative Commons Zero which means you can copy, modify, distribute and use the photos for free, including commercial purposes, without asking permission from or providing attribution to the photographer or Unsplash.

According to GNU.org, the CC0 or Creative Commons Zero license is compatible with the GPL.

CC0 is a public domain dedication from Creative Commons. A work released under CC0 is dedicated to the public domain to the fullest extent permitted by law. If that is not possible for any reason, CC0 also provides a lax, permissive license as a fallback. Both public domain works and the lax license provided by CC0 are compatible with the GNU GPL.

If you want to release your work to the public domain, we recommend you use CC0.

Unsplash’s new license states (emphasis mine):

All photos published on Unsplash can be used for free. You can use them for commercial and noncommercial purposes. You do not need to ask permission from or provide credit to the photographer or Unsplash, although it is appreciated when possible.

More precisely, Unsplash grants you a nonexclusive copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash. This license does not include the right to compile photos from Unsplash to replicate a similar or competing service. 

The inability to compile photos from Unsplash to replicate a similar or competing service is a restriction on how the photos can be used, calling into question its compatibility with the GPL.

Luke Chesser, co-founder of Unsplash, explained on Twitter that individual photos have no restrictions.

“The Unsplash license doesn’t violate GPL and can still be used in WordPress themes,” Chesser said. “There are no restrictions on the individual photos.

“There is only a restriction on the collection of photos, which doesn’t even apply unless your intent is to create a similar service.”

For example, it’s ok if someone creates a site that displays the best photos of bridges from Unsplash. But if the site makes those photos available for download, it would violate the license.

On its FAQ page, Unsplash explains why the restriction was put in place:

The fuel that drives Unsplash is the exceptional images that are generously contributed by people from all over the world. Without them, none of this would work. Unsplash would be nothing. We owe everyone who’s contributed a photo not only a thank you but support and empowerment for the gifts they’ve given us.

Out of respect for our contributors and our ability to uphold our value of empowering creativity, we added this sentence to the Unsplash License.

We don’t support the mass duplication of Unsplash photos with the purpose of replicating a similar or competing service because it leads to confusion which negatively impacts both the spirit of open creative use and the celebration of Unsplash contributors.

Mass compiling of photos from Unsplash to distribute on other sites has created legal issues in the past. “Sites that mass duplicate and compile Unsplash photos point support and legal issues back to Unsplash, while continuing to redistribute photos that may be removed on Unsplash,” the company said.

The reasons cited by Unsplash for putting the restriction in place are some of the same reasons WordPress plugin developers register trademarks. The GPL allows the following freedoms.

  1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions, giving the community a chance to benefit from your changes.

Over the years, there have been many instances in the WordPress community where businesses have taken advantage of these freedoms merely to profit from the work of others.

The reselling of commercial plugins causes confusion in the market and resellers typically point support and other inquiries back to the plugin’s developers.

Trademarks give commercial plugin authors measures to protect their brand without violating the GPL. A good example is the GravityForms Trademark page which clearly outlines how its brand can be used and displayed.

For now, it appears that most people who use Unsplash will be unaffected by the licensing change. However, as long as there is one license that governs the use of images and it has at least one restriction, its compatibility with the GPL will remain in doubt.

Correction June 14th Luke Chesser, co-founder of Unsplash, did not say that individual photos are still CC0-licensed but rather, have no restrictions.

21 Comments


  1. Personally, I can’t see anything wrong in what they are doing.

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    1. GPL-Compatible license can’t have any type of restrictions, not wrong just not compatibly licensed and that is what we’re looking for when including themes in the official theme directory.

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  2. So Unsplash is worried that someone will copy what they do? Isn’t Unsplash a copy of Flickr?

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    1. No. What they’re saying is that you cannot take THE SAME photos that are the Unsplash site and launch a photo service using THOSE PHOTOS. Rather obviously you can start a photo service that’s similar if you get people to upload other photos.

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  3. “businesses have taken advantage of these freedoms merely to profit from the work of others.”

    This is ok to do under the GPL.

    More people should take advantage and find ways to profit off of software under the GPL.

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    1. A lot of things are legal, but unethical or frowned upon by society.

      The best example of this is sites that redistribute GPL themes for free.

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      1. The best example of this is sites that redistribute GPL themes for free.

        WordPress.org distributes GPL themes for free. Are they being unethical? There is nothing unethical about distributing GPL licensed software for free. This is specifically allowed under the licence. Anyone who finds this unethical or frowns on it doesn’t understand the licence.

        There are software licenses that prohibit the redistribution of software. The GPL is not one of them.

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      2. It’s ethical too.

        Commercial plugin and theme developers benefit off of free WordPress core software, built by hundreds of devs donating thousands of hours if time.

        Automatic itself takes work donated by WordPress developers and sells it at WordPress.com.

        Other hosts like Studio press.com are free to do the same.

        This is healthy and good.

        The “cost” of selling WordPress software is you have to release it under the GPL too. This is a great thing – it makes sure no developer can become a dead end for GPL freedoms.

        It’s unethical for developers to make millions off of WordPress popularity, then try to bully and discourage others from doing the same with their GPL’d work

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      3. The example you gave is fine. Because it’s being built upon.

        I’m talking about sites like GPLDL that redistribute “premium” paid themes for free. That’s not cool at all, that’s just stealing.

        Now, I’m not sure what Unsplash’s intentions are. But from the way they explained it, I think they’re just trying to prevent people from downloading all the photos and clone a similar service. If a blogger wants to compile a list of “best of landscape photos”, I have a feeling they won’t have a problem with that.

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      4. Distributing ‘premium’ GPL licensed themes is not stealing at all.

        It is also not unethical. The license the author distributed it under, of their choosing, explicitly allows this, gives permission for it.

        Just because someone didn’t truly understand the license when they applied it to their product, doesn’t mean other users, whose actions are permitted by the license, are acting ‘unethically’.

        You should take a little more time, and consider the nature of open source, if you believe this to be unethical.

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    2. The difference is that sites like Pixabay take images from Unsplash (and others), post to their site as if they were theirs AND use the platform to funnel users to buy their premium (Shutterstock) images.

      Pretty sure GPL was never intended to be used in such a way.

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  4. I’m talking about sites like GPLDL that redistribute “premium” paid themes for free. That’s not cool at all, that’s just stealing.

    That’s not correct. GPLDL only shares themes and plugins that were published with the the GPL licence. If a theme or plugin was released with something other than the GPL licence, than you wont find it on GPLDL.

    Sharing or distributing themes or plugins released under the GPL licence is not stealing. If you release a theme or plugin under the GPL licence, whether it’s a premium or non-premium theme or plugin, you have accepted the fact that anyone who acquires the theme or plugin is free to distribute it as they see fit. This is spelled out clearly in the GPL licence:

    GNU General Public License

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    1. Right. It’s legal, just unethical. How would you feel if someone was profiting over something you released without adding additional features of benefits?

      It’s the equivalent of scamming people that were unaware it was free in the first place.

      It’s like me selling WP core code as-is (without adding additional features or benefits) to unsuspecting customers for $50. It’s totally legal, but I have a feeling the WP community wouldn’t like me very much.

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      1. It’s not unethical, period.

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      2. Is it stealing or is it legal? It can’t be both, yet you’ve said it was both. It’s not unethical either in that it specifically grants this right in the licence. Please read the licence. You cannot claim someone is acting unethical when they are simply adhering to the licence, both the letter and the spirit. You are doing a real disservice to WordPress when you say something like this.

        This isn’t really a matter of option or personal philosophy. This is all defined and spelled out in the licence. Far too many people using WordPress just don’t understand the licence. It seems they want to treat WordPress like Photoshop or some other software with a much more restrictive licence.

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      3. Take some of these cookies I made. Feel free to eat them, share them with your friends, put some chocolate on them, and even share the chocolate cookies with your friends. You have my explicit permission to do any of these things. Just make sure to let folks know that I created the original cookie.

        Thanks! Here you go Sally; try out some of these cookies that Joe made.

        What? You shared my cookies with Sally? I didn’t really want you to share them with her. I’m going to warn everyone about how you stole my cookies and gave them to Sally. That’s just straight up theft. I really wouldn’t be complaining if you’d put some frosting on them or covered them in chocolate before sharing. That would’ve been OK.

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      4. LOL. You definitely made it much easier for me to understand this whole thing.

        Thank you for the cookies :-)

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  5. Zi Yang,

    ALL those premiun/pro/paid/etc… WordPress Themes & Plugins absorb the GPL license. Hence technically speaking I can go to ThemeForest (or whatever your choice of theme/plugin source is) pay for them and redistribute.

    Every theme/plugin knows about GPL before they start their themes/plugins.

    Those authors might think this is not cool but…oh well.

    Not saying I would do this. I think it’s stupid to go to TF, pay for things, then distribute things for free…money losing proposal.

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    1. That’s exactly what I was saying. Totally legal, but the community wouldn’t like me very much.

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