Picture: Elk in river during wildfire, Bitterroot National Forest in Montana; credit: John McColgan / Alaska Fire Service
Several times in the last few weeks, I’ve watched as photos have gone ‘viral’. In the Internet age, that means that photos receive immediate and widespread recognition and distribution on web sites across the globe. If you’re a photographer whose photo happens to go viral, the joyous side of the equation is that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people may see your image. The one thing that always scares me about the viral nature of such instances is how we as photographers risk loosing complete control over how our images are used, where they might appear, or that they may even be turned into some other derivative type of artwork with absolutely no credit, attribution, or any other means of tracing the original image back to it’s origin or creator.
Viral means Exposure. If you’re an amateur photographer, and never thought to make money from your photos, it must be an awesome sense of pride to be able to strut your wings and say, “I took that.” However, if you’re a professional photographer, the exposure and any potential profit from an image going viral must be weighed against the risk of lost profits due to uncounted unauthorized or derivative uses. (Derivative means someone who either transforms or uses a portion of your art, and incorporates it into their art.)
Let’s look at a few examples, starting first with the above image, one that I’m sure everyone has seen before. It turns out that this image is in the Public Domain, having been taken while an employee of a US government agency, John McColgan of the Alaska Fire Service, was working in the course of his normal job activity. As they said in old newsprint parlance, “Read all about it!” As a Public Domain image, anyone can use this image (with proper credit) whether it’s for a blog post, poster, puzzle, calendar, greeting card, packaging, or even a full scale national ad campaign, any of which can result in thousands of dollars worth of sales to the end user, – except perhaps the blog post.
Of the two recent examples of going viral, the first would be considered as “mildy viral”, meaning pretty active, but not quite the global millions of views. A photographer I know recently posted an image on Flickr. At somepoint, someone posted a link to a large version of his image on one of the social bookmarking sites, DIGG.com. The next thing you know, he claimed he was getting a 1000 views a minute. I’m a fairly natural skeptic, so my first thought was, “Now this I want to see.” And sure enough, by refreshing his flickr page, I could see the views climbing by nearly 1000 views a minute.
On seeing this, the first thought is about what great exposure to be getting this kind of response to one of your photos; like a fine feather in your cap. On the flip side, the photographer had no watermark on his image, and only his name as the sole bit of metadata. Also, in looking over the comments, I was struck by comments that basically said, “Nice, but can we have a Hi Res version.” It seemed obvious that these people had clearly more use in mind than simply looking at the image on their computer screen, or leaving it in the original context. I was left to wonder how many people were there that didn’t ask, but simply took what was available to them under the guise of “If it’s on the Internet, It’s Free.”
We also know that many programs and web photo sites strip metadata, so without a watermark, there is virtually no way for someone to track back whose image that is once someone lifts it off wherever, reposts it elsewhere, or sticks it in an email and sends it off to two hundred of his/her closest friends. (And they send it again to two hundred of their closest friends, etc..) From a professional photographer stand point, this represents a huge potential loss of control regarding how or where your image is used. And with the impending Orphan Works Legislation, it’s even more important than ever to have your source of origin easily identified.
The last example was posted originally on the NGS Your Shot webpage, of a vacationing couple who happened to catch a case of squirrellus interuptus. (Aug. Week 1; image #9) Whammo! It goes Viral. Now there is a website where you can add this exact squirrel to any one of your photos. That’s a clear case of derivative artwork creation, and technically requires the photographers permission. Do you think they have that? Did the creators want to keep the value of the photograph for themselves, or do you think tht they knowingly released it under a Creative Commons License? Do you even think they had a clue about any of this when they first uploaded the photo?
I know that on the NGS Site, by uploading content, you are giving the National Geographic a Worldwide Royalty Free License. (“Free”, as in they don’t even have to pay you, free.) What would be the value for that kind of license for NGS, or even of use on the Squirrelizer site? For the latter, if you’re thinking of saying it doesn’t really matter because the squirrel represents such a small portion of the overall photograph, you’d be falling pray to one of the more common copyright myths. Technically, it’s the importance of an element that counts more than the percentage used that a court will consider if they have to determine damages for unauthorized use. For others, see also: 10 Myths about Copyright.
Picture: Worlds most scenic squirrel shower, near Mount Shasta, California
Opps, did I just violate a copyright? Oddly enough, on the Squirrelizer page you can read the following: “Disclaimer: the website owner takes no responsibility for the content of images processed by this website. Known images of obscene or copyright infringing content will be removed immediately. Please report any such images to the email address above.” I’m almost willing to bet that the squirrel itself is copyright infringing content.
So my question to those that read this far: How do you feel? Would you like to see your photo go viral and have gosh knows how many people posting wherever or doing whatever they want with your image, or would you rather it not go viral and maintain better control? For me: I wouldn’t mind if an image went Viral, but only as long as the image was featured with a prominent watermark; i.e. let’em know who I am and how to find me. And since you can’t count 100% on metadata or credit lines, the watermark is really the best insurance of being found if you get caught up in the virus world. Agree? Disagree? I welcome your opinions.
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