Thursday, September 19, 2013

Photos and copyright

Recently Facebook pulled a dating ad featuring the picture of a young Canadian girl who had killed herself after suffering more than a year of online bullying. The online publication of her picture by an online dating site was in all likelihood illegal. Such a use of this young woman's image is prohibited by both Canadian and American copyright laws.

I spent my life working as a staff photographer for a daily newspaper. I was not a lawyer. My understanding of copyright law as it applies to photographs was gained not at work but at art school. The newspapers were run by "word people" whose interests leaned more toward the scalping of images than protecting them. The art school was run by artists, folk whose creative world was financed by the arts. The image-scalping editors at newspapers were the artists' sworn enemies.

At art school in Detroit I was taught all works of art come into this world protected by a copyright angel. An artist does not have to do another thing. Create it and it is yours. Period. Seems simple but as I said I am not a lawyer. Once lawyers enter the picture, the picture grows murky.

First, let me say that I went to art school in the States but I'm Canadian. Copyright law in the U.S. may not be the same as in Canada. Let me say again, "I am not a lawyer." Still, I am sure there's a lot of overlap not only between Canadian and American law but around the world. I refer you to the Universal Copyright Convention to which both Canada and the United States are signatories.

For more info on U.S. law, I refer you to The United States Copyright Office. If you click the link you will learn, among other things, American law automatically protects a work from the moment of its creation. Of course, legal protection can be incredibly weak protection. Think of a bike. It is illegal to steal a bike but that does not stop the theft of hundreds of thousands of bikes annually across North America.

Stealing an image posted on the Web is far easier than stealing a bike. Often a copy of a picture can be simply "drag and dropped" from the Net onto an image pirate's desktop. The ease of this theft frightens a lot of people. They worry, and with some reason, that posted images of themselves and their family can be easily stolen and re-posted on the Web for a myriad of illegal purposes.

An image reused without authorization. © Ken Wightman
I checked more than a dozen of my posted images. Two are being used without my authorization: one a shot of locked out workers at Electromotive Diesel here in London, Ontario, and the other a shot of an abandoned factory in Detroit. I found no posted pictures of family members being reused.

I'm a little disappointed. In fact, I'm downright insulted. Heck, even the image-scrapping robots didn't think my images worth stealing.

What should we learn from the Facebook fiasco? Images can be stolen and those stolen images can get the thief in trouble. The dating service has been banned from Facebook.

What I found interesting in researching this topic is that software developers have created image-scrapping programs to prowl the Net looking for and copying images. While work on the Internet is publicly accessible, it cannot legally be treated as if it were in the public domain. It isn't. These bots are breaking the law.

Also, copyright applies whether or not there is a copyright notice. Posting a © or placing a copyright notice on your work may make you feel better, and may even deter some from stealing your work, but it does not guarantee your work will not be illegally copied and reused.

I may start putting the 'C' in a circle, along with my name, under my posted pictures. (To type the copyright symbol hold down the Alt key while typing 0169 on the numeric keypad.)
For more info, check out Top Ten Common Copyright Myths. This was posted by the UK Copyright Service but thanks to the universal nature of copyright law, it is still worth a look. The U.S. Library of Congress also hosts a good site: Taking the Mystery Out of Copyright. And if you are Canadian and would like to read an upsetting take on what companies in the image-providing business are doing to enforce their copyright, then read Excess Copyright: Watching Getty Images Watching Canadians.

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