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Copyright or Courtesy?



Three times this year, I observed circumstances which appeared to involve unauthorized use of a photograph taken by someone I know. The first time it came up, my sister e-mailed me. She was offended when she saw a photo she had taken on another person’s site, as an example of “beautiful photos.” He was not suggesting he took the photo. Indeed he had (perhaps innocently enough) found the photo on a newspaper site she had submitted it to and, acknowledged that he thought it was nice and wanted to use it on his site. So he copied and pasted.

The second involved a friend who takes high school sports shots. The day after his photo appeared on his Blog, it appeared on another person’s site.

The last instance involved someone thinking one of my own photos was being used for a popular retail store’s in house packaging. On close examination, I was fairly certain it was not my photograph.

These instances cause me to reflect on the nature of digital media, how our society views it, and the general phenomena of the internet. It strikes me that in the first case, had this young man seen my sister’s photo hanging on the wall at a public gallery (or newspaper for that matter), the thought of grabbing it for his own gallery would never had occured to him. Likewise, my friend’s sports photo. But because they are digital images on the very “public” internet, and because “taking” them involves a simple mouseclick and copy/paste operation, and because we don’t have to worry whether anybody “is looking,” users seem to feel that this somehow makes it different.

I recall a conversation I have had with both my children at some point about downloading the so-called “free” music files that are ubiquitous on the web, most notably from the site known as “Napster.” They are of course, not free, but are being (inappropriately “shared”) by other users. I also recall that “in the day” (I remember 8-track tapes and cassette tapes and times before the personal computer was in everyone’s hands), I thoughtlessly recorded my vinyl albums and shared cassettes–as well as having some of my friends’ albums on cassette. Was it wrong? Without a doubt. And I religiously preached to my children that what they were doing when they downloaded songs for their iPods without paying for them was no different than taking CD’s from a store without paying for it.

In recent years, Congress has responded to this issue, with the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. The DMCA targeted sites like Napster and the individuals who downloaded files from it. Whether or not effective, this is certainly an appropriate remedy. However, it is not really my point.

As adults, (many of us) parents, and artists, it is incumbent upon us to educate everyone we can about these issues. I believe it is largely an issue of ignorance in many cases. When confronted by my sister, the recalcitrant half-heartedly apologized and said “I thought it was a cool photo and wanted to share it with others who come to my site.” A nice sentiment, but not the point. It is another person’s property. While I was thinking about copyright violations and “damages,” my sister reminded the gentleman that it was simply a matter of courtesy to ask. On reflection, I believe she couldn’t be more right, and that we need, as parents, and as artists, to work to make certain that others understand that.

I admonished my sister to be careful to read the terms of service before publishing her photos on public sites. It is important that we protect, and others respect, our rights to our property — our photos. But basic manners and courtesy may be the real important point here.

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2 Responses

  1. At least you’re doing something “religiously” (jk).

  2. […] have previously blogged about this. It is pretty likely that I will blog about it again. As often, and as much as photographers and […]

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