Except me. As of one minute ago I confirmed what I noticed last Wednesday. According to the all seeing Google, on the entire world wide web there are but three Creative Commons licensed images of a dog.
People have worried about enclosure of the commons, these seems to be a whole lot worse. Or maybe I am being overly dramatic
Where Have all the Doors Gone?
This all began with writing my last post where the title included the words “front door.” As my atypical method goes, I look for the featured image before writing anything else. I always seek open licensed images, and while many people have different sources they use, I still lean on Old Do Lots of Data Tracking Evil Google because (a) I can uses its advanced search features; (b) it hits a wide variety of sources than a single source (flickr and Wikimedia commons yeah, but also Pixabay, other public domain sources, etc; and (c) I have a honed set of bookmarklet tools and pre-rigged search engines.
For the latest iteration of my whacky methods see the Magic Box of Image Search tricks for the last Open Education Week, the latest is setting my main browser interface to not return anything BUT Creative Commons licensed images.
I was shocked a bit last week when I did a CC filtered Google image search for “door” returned a miserable 7 results before the end of internet sign “Looks like you’ve reached the end”
In the interest of he post, I went for my fall back, searching my own flickr images for door, which yielded 440 results, and all open licensed. “Hey Google! You suck!” As it ended up, while opening new tabs for links I was seeking, the Free to Use browser extension yielded a perfect public domain photo from the Library of Congress.
Who Locked the CC Dogs Out?
I felt this evisceration of the commons by Google was strange, so I dug in a bit, hence a search on the word that is part of my name and tends to produce gobs of images- dog. A standard google image search with no restrictions yielded lots of pooches, pages and pages, but flipping open the Tools, selecting Creative Commons from the Usage rights menu, cut it down to 3.
I did the usual checks. I deleted my cache and cookies. I tried different browsers (Safari and Firefox). I switched networks from the home wireless to hotspotting from my mobile phone.
De nada. Well, 3 dogs still.
Even before tweeting, I thought first o report it to folks who ought to know about this, and posted it to the Creative Commons Slack (if you are not in there, that link won’t do aTnything). I got a quick reply from Cable Green (thanks) who alerted some of the other CC folks. The first responder Timid Robot could not reproduce it (but later did) and others chimed in. Then I tweeted, and other confirmed the paucity of CC licensed dogs in Google Images (and even worse, cats were affected).
Earl Does URL Dissection
Now here is the strange oddity. From all the tools I have made/used I know that a google image search for dog with the Creative Commons license search produces results via a URL like:
I know my parameters:
q=dog is the search term,
tbm=isch signifies and image search and
tbs=il:cl should tell Google o return only results license Creative Commons.
Now the strange thing that Timid Robot from CC reported was changing the URL to
makes it work like we’d expect (see if it works for you?)
The big question is what the bleep is
sur:fmc?? It’s a big question because Google does not seem to document all its parameters.
I know though because I have been making these URL search gizmos for a while. This goes back to the usage rights options that were first introduced by Google in 2009 where first aligned (mostly) with Creative Commons Licenses, where the usage rights were
The options were written like a weird rephrasing of CC licenses, and you had to venture to an advanced search interface:
- Not Filtered By License (all the cat photos)
- Labeled for Reuse with Modification (cats licensed CC BY, CC BY-SA but not ND ?)
- Labeled for Reuse (cats licensed under any CC license. ?)
- Labeled for Non Commercial reuse with modification (cats licensed CC BY-NC, CC BY-NC-SA?)
- Labeled for Non Commercial reuse (cats licensed CC BY-NC-ND, CC BY-NC-ND-SA?)
The search queries in this era passed parameters (with actual licenses seen there) with a lot of logic passed for the usage rights, you can see this from what the old CC Search Engine produced:
(which no longer works).
Somewhere Google changed the parameters, as when I started fiddling with browser shortcuts for image searches filtered by CC licenses in 2013, the parameter to return images “free to use and share” was in the results as
sur:fmc You can still find this in the antique Google Image advanced search (same results as the old CC Search), you get the CC licensed results. Mostly.
But here is the kicker – look at the Usage Rights menu- it does not indicate the licensing. And there is no way to get this sur:fmc parameter or results from any selection/option from the Google Image Search form.
What the bleep is
Oh I searched! I found nothing from any Google.com sie, just bits of code for various image search scrapers (here’s one example) (and another). And then I should not be surprised to find reference to this search parameter in a blogpost by my friend John Johnston where he showed how it can be used to aid searches on iPads (where the filter options for CC are not there).
Of course google changes itself. Sometime in 2020 Google changed the Usage Rights options to now offer the options under Usage Rights to be either “Creative Commons” or “Commercial and other Licenses” – you can inspect the URLs to find this is indicated in search parameters
tbs=il:cl (Creative Commons) or
tbs=il:ol (Commercial and other Licenses WTF does that even mean?).
I’m making noise to no avail. I put a question in the Google Help forum. What I got? https://www.google.com/search?q=crickets&tbm=isch&tbs=il%3Acl
I think in my small knowledge of How Google Really Works that somewhere they munged up the search tool. I’d think they care, but why would they really care about open licensed images? there’s no $$ in that.
Google is broke, I spotted it, and no one really seems to care. I’m giving them The Stare.
So I am not using Google Image search much, because it has been neutered. And yes, I agree for most folks the best option for CC licensed images is OpenVerse (ignoring the Build Your Own License every search site seems to do now) – look, there are over 10,000 CC licensed dog in OpenVerse, and you even get cut and paste attribution. You will find nearly all my Felix photos there.
And again, I will craft a new image search strategy.
Lots of action from this post getting tweeted. Do we call twitter “broken” when it works to get notice? Hmmmm.
Looks like promise of this being fixable, so keep checking and see if the CC Dogs are let out!
And woah, thanks to a trackback ping (still a thing) to a Russian blog, I see for what its worth, this post got into Hacker News https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=33007025 and apparently on September 28, 2022 I hit number 34 on the HN front page. My blog views went from an average of 500 per day to 11,000! There’s my big moment. Poof!
Followup in a series now tagged googleccimagesdogsmissing
And for a new way of finding CC licensed images…
Featured Image: Who Broke the Internet? flickr photo by cogdogblog shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0) easily found in my own flicks stream, modified by me (Alan Levine) to include a screenshot of the only 3 CC license images google can find