Photography, Copyright, and the Internet
I’ve been listening to some of the chatter around the office lately. It seems that there is a lot of activity on the issue of copyright law and the Internet. History Geek filled me in on some of it. Most of it involves movies and music but he did mention something odd. Photographs are often shared over websites like Facebook, Twitter, and on millions of other websites around the ‘Net, often with attributions removed or edited out. Some of the most well-known instances of this are iconic images like the photo of the three firemen raising the US flag at Ground Zero that was taken by Thomas Franklin or the photo of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima (taken by Joe Rosenthal). There are others, of course. Many of these photos wind up on sites like LOLCats, 9GAG, and Memebase and, if the meme around them is successful, they’ll spread over the Internet like wildfire.
However, very rarely do any of the photographers attempt to stop the spread of these images. Music companies and movie studios will sue anyone who attempts to distribute one of their works — provided, of course, that they can find who is behind it. They’ll also sue people who download their works. These organizations have even gone to Congress and had laws written that would have given them broad surveillance powers and almost police-like authorities over Internet users they suspected of downloading their movies or music. However, photographers rarely do more than gripe on their personal sites or mention it in interviews. The news of their complaints rarely gets as far as the original image did. Sometimes these photographers might be successful in stopping a meme from spreading when it makes use of their image — Michael Yon has gotten anti-military memes stopped when they make use of his photo “Little Girl” — but most photographers rarely bother with a lawsuit unless it’s a commercial enterprise making illicit use of their work. Why is that?
Part of it probably is because picture files are very small and spread very quickly. A photographer can upload an image to Flickr, Picasso, Facebook, or share it over Twitter and within a few hours, it can have been downloaded and re-uploaded to hundreds of thousands of other computers and sites. And, since it’s the image that is so compelling, people rarely bother to note who took it. If there was copyright text included in the image, someone will eventually crop it out or paint over it and then that image will spread, making it harder for people who might want to give attribution or to know how it was or who captured it to get that information.
Photographers also rarely have the resources of large multi-national corporations. Since launching a lawsuit against half the Internet would be costly, they rarely bother. And, many of them may no doubt be somewhat thrilled that their photograph is being shared and seen by so many. They may, like Michael Yon does, repress a sigh when they see grandmothers sharing the image on Facebook and only take action when the use is offensive or misrepresents the story behind the image itself. Even then, lawsuits usually are not used, being reserved only for when someone is profiting off their works.
At least that’s what I think. If any of you have been in the position of having one of your images spread quickly across the Internet with no one knowing it was yours, let us know what you thought and how you felt about it in the comments below!