John Harrington  came upon an obvious case of copyright infringement  by the Gizmodo blog last week. The gadget site, owned by Gawker Media, had created a photo illustration that incorporated one of photographer Jill Greenberg’s  famous crying baby images without her permission. But more interesting than the infringement — which, frankly, is the rule rather than the exception on blogs today — were the reactions John received in comments.
First, Robert Green, Jill’s husband, reported with some level of satisfaction that Gizmodo had removed the photo when the infringement was pointed out: “to gizmodo/gawker’s credit, they immediately took the image down when they were asked to without a second’s hesitation.”
Commenter Ian Evans then took exception with Robert’s response, which he apparently viewed as tepid:
Okay, let’s rewrite that sentence in a different context: ‘to the car thief’s credit, he immediately returned my vehicle to me without a second’s hesitation.’ The crime was still committed.
The exchange seemed to me a succinct summation of the ongoing debate among photographers on the subject of copyright and the Web. Should photographers be satisfied when Web sites remove copyrighted work upon request — which has become more or less standard practice — or should they fight harder to prevent their images from appearing in unauthorized uses — such as taking infringers to court as a deterrent?
Car Theft vs. Speeding
I certainly understand the logic of the car thief analogy. But when half the drivers on the road are “car thieves,” does the term retain its meaning? If the majority of bloggers — and blog readers — don’t believe these blogs have “stolen a car” when they lift a picture from Google Images, isn’t the battle already lost?
Maybe a better analogy, at least in terms of public sentiment, would be to compare unauthorized photo use with a lesser offense, like speeding. People know they shouldn’t speed, but they do it anyway; it gets them somewhere faster, in the same way that yanking a picture off Google gets their blog post finished faster than trying to find an appropriate image on iStockPhoto or Flickr. In the mind of the blogger, it’s rarely about stealing — after all, you’re only saving a buck or two by not using microstock — it’s about “speeding.”
When people are caught speeding, they expect to pay a fine of some kind — something not too crazy, but enough to make them think twice (or at least look twice) before doing it again.
I’m wondering if photographers who liken infringers to car thieves and want them “sent to jail,” as another of John’s commenters wrote, would be better off staking out more moderate — and obtainable — objectives?
An Arms Race with Technology
To see what photographers are up against, just look at what happened in federal court last week. The video-sharing site Veoh slapped down Universal Music Group’s copyright infringement claims , with the judge stating that Veoh was fine as long as it “expeditiously remove[d] or disable[d] access to [infringing] material.”
Sounds a lot like what Gizmodo did, doesn’t it?
Granted, video- and photo-sharing sites are one step removed from the actual infringement — so they don’t have “actual knowledge” of it — but to the layperson that’s a minor distinction.
And then there is the larger issue: even if the courts were siding with photographers at every turn, would this battle be any more winnable in the end? Jacob Andreas  frames the issue this way:
This arms race between technology and copyright protection … has been a continued feature of the American copyright debate; what is new is that technology has effectively reached the point where users may make an infinite number of copies at no cost.
Every Google search, every website visited and every email forwarded creates copies; all computer technology relies on the fact that every day billions, perhaps tens of billions of copyright infringements go unprosecuted … We can never design a copyright for the Internet age, because is not just impractical, but impossible, to prevent the copying of digital information.
What’s Worked — and What Hasn’t
We’ve seen different segments of the media take polar-opposite approaches to this issue — with less than stellar results. The newspaper industry has done virtually nothing to prevent its copyrighted content from appearing on blogs — and of course, we see how well that’s worked out for them. But at the other end of the spectrum, has the RIAA really done itself any favors with its draconian approach?
Perhaps what we should really be focusing on is finding a place in the middle. YouTube’s approach, for example, is an interesting one. The other day I got an e-mail telling me that one of my YouTube videos contained copyrighted music, and that because I had infringed on the copyright, they were going to add advertising to the video — the proceeds of which, I presume, would go to the copyright holder.
Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to protest the decision, and I did — sending back proof that I had actually purchased the music from a stock site. But if I hadn’t, I would’ve been OK with YouTube adding the advertising — a low-hassle solution for all involved.
Kind of like getting a speeding ticket.