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Hey, I Borrowed Your Car!

I borrowed your car. No, I didn’t ask permission first. Sorry. I “hotwired” it. I just used it for a short run. Didn’t think you would mind. Yeah, that was me you saw driving it. Why didn’t I ever tell you? Didn’t think I needed to. It was personal, so I didn’t make any money using it. I thought that was o.k.”

How many of us would be o.k. with that? What if it was a complete stranger? Does it make a difference if it was someone close, like a family member or close friend? Aren’t they still taking and using something that doesn’t belong to them? I like to think that in my family we were raised to appreciate the sanctity and value of other’s property.

This kind of “joy riding” happens on a daily basis with electronic images on the internet.

O.k. This isn’t really about cars. This kind of “joy riding” happens on a daily basis with electronic images (artwork, and photographs) on the internet. I am really talking about copyright issues. I hope you keep your car locked and have the keys with you or in a safe place.

I have previously blogged about this. It is pretty likely that I will blog about it again. As often, and as much as photographers and other creators and owners of intellectual property “harp” on this topic, it just doesn’t seem to sink in. People just don’t “get it” (yes, that is a soap box I am standing on :-)). I say this without rancor. In fairness to many users who are not themselves, photographers, artists, musicians or writers, I believe they just haven’t thought about it. But it is really not that different from borrowing a car without permission, especially without knowing the owner–Perhaps a matter of degree–but certainly the same principle.

I have often observed that I think the culprit is the so-called “digital age.” Perhaps digital capture, the internet, and the ease of electronic distribution and publication are only symptoms, and the real cause is simply a lack of understanding and/lack of respect for the property of others; but in my mind, it is difficult to determine which drives the other. So I will note that whether or not it is to blame, this “digital” ease of access has certainly been a major influence on the problem. It is so easy to find and view photographic images on the web today. And it is equally easy for all but the most rudimentary computer users to click and download copies of these images.

The same problem exists for the authors of written materials. But I think there is a significant difference. We intuitively know that using someone else’s writing is plagiarism. We are taught this in our education system. We are penalized (sometimes severely) as students in our schools and colleges for plagiarism. And, different from art and photographic images, we may use short portions of a written work in research or scholarly writing, as long as we properly attribute the quote and the source. I think a similar issue exists for the creators and owners of musical intellectual property. Indeed, this problem existed long before the web was accessible worldwide. Tape recording and later DVD burning has been a problem for the owners of this property for many years.

There is a very real “understanding” on the part of many, that if an image is out there on the internet, they are free to use it; in effect to right-click “hotwire” it and drive away with it.

We don’t seem to have the same intrinsic knowledge as users when it comes to photographic images. There is a very real “understanding” on the part of many, that if an image is out there on the internet, they are free to use it; in effect to right-click “hotwire” it and drive away with it.

But what is it (other than undetected, easy access) that makes the internet different from the library, public gallery, museum or bookstore? How many persons who blithely copy images from the web for their own use would walk into one of these places, remove the item from the shelf or wall, take it home and copy it, and then return it? While there are probably some who would, I believe most of use wouldn’t even consider doing that. It really isn’t any different!

I use the word “property” advisedly. A photographic image, in many ways, is not a physical thing. No one would seriously argue that a framed, matted print is not physical. But an on-screen electronic image (while perhaps contemporaneously on several other screens) can’t be physical and so it can’t be property. Can it? Of course it is. But its very ethereal nature makes it very difficult to think of as a “thing” that belongs to someone. It is not unlike the written word. The only thing physical about the written word is the ink and paper it is printed on. But does anyone doubt that the writer is entitled to regard it as his own?

The owner of a photographic image owns the image and all the rights to the use of that image!

Is it because an image may be of a place or thing accessible to all and the “user” believes they could go out and “take” their own picture? That does not make the image they are copying for their own use, any less someone else’s property. Because this concept of “property” is so difficult to see, our legal system refers to it as “Intellectual Property” (IP). At its barest minimum, IP is an “idea.” In terms of photography, it is a person’s unique “capture” of a subject. And the owner of IP owns the image and all the rights to the use of that image!

That means any use. It means putting it up on my own blog or other website without permission of the owner, even if I attribute the copyright to her! It means using it for my own art as part of a collage. It means adding it to my family album or publishing it in my personal internet-published book or album without the owner’s prior permission. It means using it as an illustration of “how to” or “how not to.” I publish a couple guides to photographing places like Vermont and the Michigan U.P. Several of the photographs in those guides were taken by other photographers. It is not enough for me to put the photo in with a copyright attribution. I have obtained express, prior permission of the photographers as well as giving them attribution. Anything else would be outright theft of their property! It is that serious.

I appreciate that some of you are photographers and friends. I apologize for the lecture. But, in light of some recent events and discussions in some cases close to home, I feel compelled to Blog against evil and fight for justice again 🙂. Seriously, I am not meaning to “preach to the choir” here. Rather, I am hoping that someone outside the choir will read and take this to heart. In that spirit, contrary to the sermon, please feel free to plagiarize, copy, forward, and use this in any way that will further the cause.


5 Responses

  1. […] thinking so I searched for some other posts on the subject and uncovered some more goodposts! i.e. this post by lightcentric, posted last week, on a blog called LightCentric Photography Blog: I have obtained […]

  2. It’s amazing the number of people I know that do this so casually and how rampant it is with movies, music, etc. Any time I make a point about it to them, I get treated like I am some oddball. I may use the borrow your car analogy next time!

    • Mark. I do think it is a benign mindset. I doubt that people have really thought seriously about the property rights they are taking in most cases. I guess its up to us to continue to educate and “crusade,” as “odd as that makes us 🙂

  3. While all that you say is correct, Andy, there is a new way to share that is more aligned with the Internet age and many people’s desire to share their work. I am speaking about the Creative Commons licenses which allow an author/creator to allow certain reuses without prior permission. At a minimum, the author will require the user to give them attribution as the creator. Creative Commons works with traditional copyright to make sharing easier.


    • Una: Thanks for your comment. With respect, I believe it kind of misses (and kind of makes) the point :-). I am fully familiar with Creative Commons and its licensing scheme. However, it is a voluntary, contractual type of agreement. My point was that photographic images are (intellectual) property which belongs to somebody, just like a car is. And most of us would not think of simply using a car without permission.

      Creative Commons is a form of licensing. It can be very flexible for the licensor. So-called “microstock” images often involve another form of licensing which can also involve unlimited use (usually for a nominal price). They are useful tools.

      But they do not change the nature of intellectual property or copyright law. They are a way to license use of your images.

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