Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

I figure a quotation at the beginning of a post makes it look classy. It doesn’t matter if the quotation fits, but it lends an air of elegance. It’s like using a nice frame around a bad photograph.

Interestingly enough, this quotation from Othello does apply to the topic of this post.  This speech, with the theme that a good reputation is far more valuable than any worldly possession, is delivered by one of Shakespeare’s slimiest villains, Iago.

It’s also a load of hog slop. I’m not disputing the value of a good name; what I am arguing is that my purse, or more specifically my intellectual property, is not trash.

My intellectual property hasn’t been stolen very often. Perhaps I should say that I’ve had little experience being a victim, and the few times that it’s happened haven’t scarred me. It may be that I have a higher tolerance to being ripped off than other photographers. I confess that I have not used Google image search to see if others have appropriated my photographs for their own uses. If I don’t have enough time to make photographs, I sure don’t have time to hunt thieves.

Am I happy when someone steals my work? Hell, no. Then why doesn’t this act make me crazy or cause me to take extraordinary measures to punish the thief?

I do not accept the justification that it’s a complement to be ripped off. Approbation by theft is a poor excuse, and the idea that I should not be upset because my work was good enough to be stolen doesn’t appeal to me.

No, the reason I’m not up in arms, stamping about, and screaming is because I don’t think it’s worth the trouble.

To start with, I am culpable to a certain extent. The only way one of my photographs can be stolen is because I posted it somewhere where it is vulnerable. Anyone that posts on Facebook or Flickr or even a web site like this is like the greengrocer displaying his wares outside his door. There’s going to be a little shrinkage in the inventory.

I absolutely refuse to watermark. If the watermark is large enough to do any good, then it becomes part of the image…and probably a distracting element. If it’s inconspicuous enough that it doesn’t detract, then it’s too easy to clone out.

I suppose a thief could do a copy of one of my prints—found hanging in the best bathrooms and closets—but that is not likely. The truth of the matter is that my prints can be found only on my walls or in friends’ homes. That does limit the opportunity to copy.

If I find an infringement, what are my remedies? My true remedies? I’m going to ignore the case where I’m going for actual damages. Those amounts are absurdly low. Instead, I’m going to use the force of copyright law to seek redress.

Let’s suppose that I am lucky, and I’ve not only registered my copyright, but I’ve gotten back acceptance before the infringement took place. Let’s be honest, I register in batches because I’m cheap, and it takes forever to get back that piece of paper from the US Copyright Office. I know that you can get a quick turnaround on a registration, but that is very expensive.

Okay, step one done. I now go look for a lawyer. For some reason, attorneys want to be paid. You’d think they’d work on spec, as many photographers are asked to do, but they seem more mercenary than artists. In any event, there are filing and other fees to be paid up front.

Then there are the God-awful long delays before the case is heard. Justice may not always be sure, but it is always slow.

The case is heard, I get my judgment—which is not guaranteed—and I now can execute on that judgment (including attorney’s fees) against the defendant, the officially recognized infringer.

He owns a web site, a Canon camera (I shoot Nikon), and a 2003 Subaru Outback. I’m going to rake in the money now!

Remember that Whistler successfully sued Ruskin for libel; he was awarded one farthing and no fees. It ended up bankrupting Whistler and affected his career and health for the rest of his life. I’m not suggesting this would happen to someone defending their copyright, but I am pointing out that there may be unforeseen consequences to being in the right. Justification can be expensive in many ways.

So the most I’ll do is a DMCA takedown, unless of course the infringer is Apple or General Motors. In that case, I figure it might be worth pursuing other legal courses. For some reason, that hasn’t happened to me. Damn it.

I won’t add anything new to the discussion of why IP theft is tolerated more than it was in the past. Partially it’s because of the same triad used to evaluate any activity: reward, risk, and opportunity. The reward part of the equation hasn’t changed much. Stealing a photograph from the web gets you the same return as doing a copy negative from an Olen Mills portrait: you have duplicated an image for your use without permission. The risk is also about the same as it used to be. Enforcement is as rare as it ever was.

Opportunity, on the other hand, has changed considerably. Ease of access is the hallmark of the internet age. We are able to reach in nearly undetected to grab a copy while sitting comfortably at our home computer.

Add to this the perceived devaluation of our images, and copying doesn’t seem to be much of a crime. Our work is devalued because it appears to be easily created—anyone with a cell phone can take a photo—and because we have an entire generation thinking the “internet is free.”, a wonderful web site started many years ago by the late Michael Reichmann, recently moved from an unpaid model to charging $1 per month. You should have heard the screaming, the recriminations about this change. Even though the forums have free access, there were several users that vowed never to return.

Of course Luminous Landscape had to make the change. Servers are not free, hosting costs are high, and internet advertising returns are way, way down. Providing “free” content costs a lot of money. Too many users, however, think that by paying their cable modem bill—and they aren’t really happy about that either—entitles them to do whatever they want with whatever they see.

What prompted this rant was a post by Mark Garbowski on his wonderful blog entitled “Why I’m Withdrawing My Creative Commons License.” I’m not writing to comment on his decision, but only because his post triggered some free neurons in my head.

Mr. Garbowski licensed at least some of his images under the Creative Commons License. Basically he was allowing non-commercial use of his images with proper attribution. Further, he was promoting the idea that derivative works should be as open as his work.

His post details the abuses that he suffered, which were many. Go read it; it’s worth your time.

I’m afraid the only thing I could say would be, “Mark, my friend, remember that locks are for honest people.” I admire his idealism, but I’m too damned old to believe in it.







This entry was posted in Opinion, Other Photographers, Photography.

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