On February 11th, Flightsim.to announced some major changes to its popular online add-on distribution platform. The announcement has resulted in major freeware developers calling for a boycott of Flightsim.to.
The website unveiled plans for a Premium Membership which would allow for faster downloads and ad-free browsing. Additionally, a new Creators Program would allow for revenue sharing between Flightsim.to and developers for popular add-ons. The program would include incentives for unique user downloads, frequent updates, and high user ratings.
Additionally, a new donation system would allow users to contribute to creators directly via Flightsim.to rather than rely on a third party such as PayPal. It was not made clear how this money would be split between the website and the creators. According to Flightsim.to, relying on PayPal or other donation methods “can be complex, cumbersome and a privacy-critical topic” and the new system “eliminates the need to pass private information to third-parties, and ensures that all donations are made in a secure and streamlined manner.”
Reaction from the freeware developer community to the Creator Program has been mixed. KL791, developer of the popular Global AI Ship Traffic add-on stated in a comment on the announcement “The model suggested will create a revenue stream as eg. Youtube offers. We will become tax liable and have to spend time on administration on something which anyway will not be a huge income.” The developer would also highlight a clause in Flightsim.to’s terms of service which states:
(4.3) Licenses you are granting us: By submitting or posting User Content to the Service (either directly or through a Third Party Service) you grant this Site a royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, sublicensable, assignable, unrestricted, worldwide license to use the User Content, together with all consents or waivers (if any) necessary to distribute, publicly perform, publicly display, transmit, communicate to the public and modify the User Content, by any means and in all media formats and channels now known or hereafter devised in perpetuity, and to advertise and promote such use, without further notice to, or permission from, you or any other person, and without compensation or reference to you or any other person.
Flightsim.to’s policy of not allowing add-ons to be deleted from the site, coupled with the new revenue streams, KL791 argued, could potentially open up freeware developers to legal action from copyright holders. “If they run into a conflict on copyright, where a simple deletion would in many cases though not always satisfy a copyright holder. But you actually remove that right from the uploader, which is extremely dangerous.”
The Flightsim.to admins clarified in a response that the Creator Program was completely optional and developers could choose not to participate. They did not immediately address the second concern over the terms of service.
Developers Launch Boycott
The incident around the Creators Program and subsequent renewed interest in the site’s terms of service led KL791 and several other prominent creators to announce a boycott of Flightsim.to.
After reporting that they were initially denied permission to delete their content, KL791’s add-ons have been deleted from the site.
Got Friends, a freeware developer who transitioned to payware after gaining popularity on Flightsim.to released a statement saying “We believe that a creator’s right to cease distribution of their intellectual property should not be determined by Flightsim.to.” Their content has since been deleted from Flightsim.to.
PuffinFlight, the developer behind We Love VFR would comment that they were also considering leaving Flightsim.to over the move stating “Having no control of my files is a big no no. Nothing against premium, but how can I be sure that Flightsim.to won’t go behind a paywall one day? They can. It’s their business, nothing against that. But then I don’t want my files on a paywalled site. Unfortunately with these terms I can do nothing about it.” As of this writing, PuffinFlight’s content remains available on Flightsim.to.
Emerald Scenery Design would write on their Facebook “[The License] states: We own your content once you upload it and even if you delete it, we will reupload it as we see fit. This goes against copyright law. And if a user truly needs to honor a take-down request, they are unable to easily do so.” Emerald Scenery Design has since removed their content from Flightsim.to.
In response to the boycott, Flightsim.to issued an updated statement saying:
We do not claim ownership, copyright or intellectual property to any of our user’s uploads. We do not intend to sell, lease, rent or otherwise make profit through any User Content or to use content beyond the confines of Flightsim.to. You retain full ownership and copyrights to your User Content – what is yours, belongs to you. You only grant us a license to distribute your content, which is the core mission and idea of our platform and always has been. We will not and we are in no way entitled to claim ownership of your content, nor will we ever place your content behind a paywall or similar.
The site states via FAQ pages that the reason they do not allow deletion of popular mods is because of dependencies that develop when another user’s mod requires yours to be downloaded as well, say in the case of liveries for freeware aircraft or with scenery libraries.
The site highlights that similar clauses appear on other popular mod sites such as Nexus Mods.
Despite this stance, they have given all creators the opportunity to delete their mods before March 5th of 2023; An option that many have exercised.
Exploring the Terms
Many developers were blindsided by the revelation that they could not legally delete their own mods according to the Flightsim.to TOS. But when exactly was this provision introduced?
According to archived versions of Flightsim.to available via the Wayback Machine, when Flightsim.to was launched, the clause which granted Flightsim.to the rights to distribute content uploaded to their site very plainly states that users may request the deletion of their content. “As soon as you decide to delete your User Content(s), we will irrevocably delete it completely from our server(s) within two weeks and will no longer make use of the above-mentioned license in the future.”
By April of 2021, this clause was amended to include a statement saying “This excludes files that have become so essential that we have a legitimate interest in continuing to host them.”
June of 2021 saw this clause given a paragraph number of 4. By September, the clause was re-numbered to 4.1 and all references to a user deleting their content were removed. A new clause 4.3 would add:
(4.3) This licence [sic] ends when you delete or terminate your User Content or account, unless your content has been shared with other users and they have not deleted the content. When you delete User Content, it is removed in a manner similar to emptying the recycle bin on a computer. You should be aware that removed content will persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time, which are not accessible to others.
A May of 2022 version of the license page sees the paragraphs re-numbered once again with the former clause 4.1 becoming 4.3. It now appears exactly as it did when KL791 raised their concerns in the original announcement thread.
As of this writing, the current license has been updated once again to clarify Flightsim.to’s stance on the deletion of content. A new clause 4.6 states:
(4.6)Please note: We reserve the right to keep your User Content indefinitely and are not obligated to remove it or stop distributing it if you request so, in accordence [sic] with the licenses you have granted us described above. The rights you have given us remain in effect even after this Agreement ends or if we discontinue your access to the Website. We might have a legitimate interest in continuing to share or to keep available your User Content. We may permit the deletion of your User Content in our sole discretion. If we grant such deletion, the licences [sic] granted will termine [sic] once the User Content has been removed, except where you permitted the further use of User Content after your removal, or the law requires otherwise. For example, removal of User Content by you does not require the Platform to: (a) recall User Content that is being used by other users within any limited offline viewing functionality of the Service; (b) delete copies we reasonably need to keep for legal purposes; and we can only remove the User Content (c) unless your content has been shared with other users and they have not deleted the content, or, (d) unless otherwise stated in this Agreement. When we delete User Content upon request, it is removed in a manner similar to emptying the recycle bin on a computer. You should be aware that removed content will persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time, which are not accessible to others.
Notably, clause 4.3 has also been modified removing the phrase “modify the User Content” from rights granted to Flightsim.to.
The Situation Develops
As of now, it is unclear if Flightsim.to’s clarifications and updates will be enough to assuage the fears of developers. Crucially, the site has not backed down from its stance of not allowing popular add-ons to be deleted at the request of the author, a key request for many of the developers who have raised concerns.