To the entire Internet: Here’s how to steal my work – but be warned, I’ll steal yours in the same ways
The other day several of my friends e-mailed me congratulations that one of my photos had been published. It caught me flat-footed; I hadn’t submitted any photos anywhere! It turns out two of my photos were published that day in different online publications – without my knowledge.
The first ended up being a permitted use. Indiana Landmarks, our state’s historic preservation group, used to e-mail me a couple times a year asking to use my photos in their publications. I’m a Landmarks member and love their cause, so I always enthusiastically said yes. Finally I just gave them blanket permission to use my photos as they see fit as long as they credit me. I just didn’t stop to think that “as they see fit” might include passing them on to an outside group!
The photo in question is this one of The Diner, the front part of which is a 1953 Mountain View aluminum diner. I took it on my 2009 trip along Indiana’s National Road (US 40). A well-known landmark in the Indianapolis suburb of Plainfield, it has been closed and vacant for years now. It is also the last aluminum diner on the entire National Road, which led Indiana Landmarks to advocate for its preservation. They’ve worked out a deal where the diner itself will be moved farther into town, still on the National Road, but this valuable land will be sold for development.
But that’s not why a cropped version of the photo showed up in this story in The Indianapolis Star. It appeared there because Indiana Landmarks sent poets all over Indiana to write verse about various landmarks, including The Diner; they then held a reading of all the poems. The Star wrote a story about it, and Indiana Landmarks provided my photo for the story. Indiana Landmarks honored my terms by asking that the Star credit me, and the Star was good to honor that request.
The other photo was published without my permission. It is this photo of the Monon Fitness Center, which I took a couple months ago with my vintage Agfa Clack. (And in the three years since my photo of The Diner, I learned how to fill the frame with my subject!)
I uploaded this photo to Flickr, where I assign all of my photos a Creative Commons license that lets people use them freely for non-profit purposes as long as they credit me and use them unmodified. The Indianapolis Business Journal is certainly for profit – and when this building sold recently to be converted into a brew pub, the IBJ featured my photo when they blogged about the sale. They credited me and linked to my blog.
I was at once delighted and irritated. I love it when someone finds my pictures useful. My words, too, for that matter. But couldn’t the IBJ have sent me a quick message asking my permission? Harrumph!
But it’s time for full disclosure: I sometimes use others’ work here on Down the Road:
- Just last week I used a frame from a Harry Potter movie in a post, and I have reproduced a few photos from a book about US 40 here. I think (hope!) this falls under fair use.
- For my recent post about television news themes, not only did I use a photo of a television I found somewhere on the Internet, I superimposed onto the screen a frame from a YouTube video of a copyrighted TV news broadcast. Heck, for that matter, I made the accompanying video of copyrighted news opens from videos I liberated from around YouTube.
- Finally, for several years I knew I was violating Google’s terms when I used screen shots from Google Maps in my road-trip posts. Used to be, Google insisted that maps be embedded. But they sometimes update the aerial imagery, meaning that my blog would no longer show things as they were at the time I took my trip. So I deliberately violated their terms until a couple years ago when Google relaxed the terms to allow screen shots as long they’re properly attributed. That’s why you now see long copyright statements under my Google Maps screen shots.
A couple years ago I quietly added a Copyright page to this blog. It outlines the practices I try to follow in using the work of others, and states my terms if you want to use my work (my photographs and my words). I happen to think that the best way to protect your work is to not publish it on the Internet. I won’t go as far as to say that publishing on the Internet erodes your copyright, but I think it’s realistic to expect some of it will eventually be stolen. You have to determine whether righting the wrong is worth the costs, in time, effort, and maybe even lawyer fees. I have come down on the side of nope in all cases so far. Here’s my twofold litmus test:
- Have you harmed me somehow, such as by claiming my work as your own, associating me with something I don’t support, modifying my work in a way I don’t like, or making significant money from my work?
- Are you being a butthead, repeatedly using my work without honoring my terms?
I don’t feel harmed by the IBJ‘s use of my Monon Fitness Center photo – they credited me, I like the IBJ, they didn’t even crop the photo, and I can’t imagine how my photo materially boosted their revenue. (I might not be so forgiving if I made my living with my camera or my writing. I make software to feed my family.) And as far as I know, they haven’t been liberally raiding my Flickr stream. So they get a pass for using my photo.
Similarly, I think my use of others’ work here on Down the Road meets the same criteria. Well, my repeated use of Google Maps imagery miiiiiiight have dipped its toes into the butthead pool a little. I was relieved when Google changed its terms, and I immediately started honoring them.
What do you think? Are you more or less rigid than me when it comes to your work that you’ve published online? Why?