Let’s Work Together to Protect Copyright

In my last post, I discussed some of the challenges facing copyright law that are of concern to photographers. Since I’m not one to complain without offering suggestions, I thought I’d share some ideas on how we as photographers can better our situation.

Working Together

For starters, it’s going to be difficult for photographers to move the needle on copyright if we don’t work together. That means our professional organizations should play an important role.

They need to do more than hand out awards, sell products for third-party vendors and cash in on workshops. They need to initiate and support public initiatives to curtail copyright infringement.

While I don’t agree with all of the tactics of the MPAA and RIAA, their achievements have been impressive. The legislation they have pushed through Washington, and the aggressiveness of their approach to infringement, puts our industry to shame.

We need our organizations to stand up and be aggressive in this same way.

Strengthening Copyright Enforcement

What are some of the things photographers can do, working together, to reduce copyright infringement? Perhaps we can work with the U.S. Copyright Office to curtail accidental or “I didn’t know better” infringements.

Most copyright registrations for photography are made electronically these days. Why not have a system where you can search the Copyright Office’s database to identify copyrighted images? With the advent of technologies like TinEye, which allows visual search and comparison of digital images, one could imagine a system where an image could be checked against the Copyright Office database to determine whether it is under copyright.

It’s not a fool-proof solution, and it doesn’t protect photographers who don’t register their work — but it would be a start.

Influencing Google

Just as consumers have a tendency to trust doctors because of their white coats, they tend to trust large companies under the theory that they wouldn’t lead them astray of the law.

Google Images search and other applications make it really easy to find pictures. Unfortunately, Google Images search also makes it really easy to intentionally or unknowingly infringe on intellectual property.

Google does have a tiny notice on its image search indicating that results may be copyrighted. So what? ‘May be’ is a pretty flimsy phrase.

Google protects its code. Its entire business is built on the IP that allows it to sell gobs and gobs of ads. In the same way, my entire business is based on IP that allows me to control the use of my product, thereby monetizing it.

Google has an understanding of and respect for its own IP. What about ours?

Perhaps we can help convince Google to add an interstitial page or overlay in image search results. A plain-language notice indicating that users are free to view image search results — but probably not free to use them beyond looking — would be a big step in the right direction.

Google could even make money on this by selling ads for legitimate stock agencies, or even legitimate freebie sites, in association with these notices.

Can we browbeat them to listen to our concerns — if we band together?

An Easier Way to Seek Compensation

It can take forever for a copyright case to get to federal court. It can also be very expensive for the rights holder to take it there.

And while a clear-cut case with registered artwork makes it easier to find an attorney willing to take the case on contingency, it doesn’t necessarily speed up the process. Most photographers figure it’s not worth the hassle.

I’m not a copyright attorney, but I wonder if it would be possible to set up an “infringement hotline” where infringements can be pursued outside of the courts — either by the government or non-government groups. The fines could fund the initiative as well as compensate photographers.

New Protections Are Needed

Progress is progress. But just as the speed and weight of cars made roads more dangerous after the horse and buggy era, so does the speed and power of the Internet pose threats in addition to offering benefits.

As nearly all copyrighted work touches the Internet at some point, some new systems and tools for enforcement must be put in place to protect those who make their livings in intellectual property.

We can’t do our job as photographers if it doesn’t keep a roof over our heads, and our bills paid.

7 Responses to “Let’s Work Together to Protect Copyright”

  1. Actually NPPA which you are a member did go to Washington as well as ASMP and other photographer groups. But we were having to respond from a defensive position which is much more difficult.

  2. Yes, I am a member of the NPPA. And I am aware that several of the associations (NPPA notwithstanding) have and do lobby in DC.

    Their actions, in my opinion, have been weaker than those of many other industrial associations, and their defensive posture is due largely to their inertia.

    Associations like NPPA tend to be reactive rather than proactive in their actions.

    They will decry poor legislation (a good thing, to be sure), but they are not nearly as aggressive in drafting and pushing legislation that helps its members.

    Look to the RIAA and MPAA, and you'll see that they have strong working relationships with legislators like Orrin Hatch.

    They push for, even draft, legislation to protect their interests.

    Measures get pushed more than protested in those cases.

    Associations are sums of their members. And I'm certainly not slamming the groups themselves.

    But they, and we, can't afford to be on the defensive anymore.

    And some times, the best defense is a good offense.

  3. How do you think wikimedia commons (4.8 million free images and counting) would react to such a misleading interstitial page?

  4. Misleading how? Wikimedia Commons is a clear exception to the works commonly found in Google Images.

    The 4.8M pictures available through Wikimedia Commons is a minute fraction of the non-free data on the Web.

    Frankly, the interstitial page could be a boon for WMC. They could put up a notice that there is free media available on their site.

  5. Why is the US deaf to what http://www.useplus.com is doing? Canada is on to something here.

  6. Everyone makes a big deal about Tin Eye. Yes it's a good start, but it doesn't search sites like DeviantArt.com, so just because it doesn't show up in a Tin Eye search, don't assume that it hasn't been ripped off.

  7. I am late on reading this - it's a great article. Unfortunately, even with clear-cut cases with registered artwork, finding an attorney willing to take the case on contingency (especially in this economy) is a joke. A good list of IP attorneys who represent photographers would be a good start. Most of the IP attorneys who speak about copyright and registration are only interested in selling books and speaking at seminars.

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