In today’s internet age there is no greater scourge, especially for professional photographers, than the misuse of copyright material. By that I mean the use of other people’s photographs or other products for commercial and other use without recompense or attribution. In some countries, stealing the works of others is considered legal, as long as ‘minor’ changes are made to such things as a photograph. Contesting these things can become protracted and expensive, though more are making an attempt. It’s a sad indictment on society in general and even the courts, but more so on businesses and the like who believe that anything on the internet is free to use, regardless of intellectual property and copyright legislation.
The internet has made things very easy for anyone to search and find images and whatnot, and for them to simply copy the image for their own use, whether personal or business. And when it comes to business, the big problem is that individuals can’t easily take on large organisations that decide to use what’s not theirs, as the legal hoops one must go through can be significant. This recently hit home, not in a major way, but illustrated how easy it is to find a photograph on Google and just save it to your computer and away you go. Now when it comes to Google most, if not all, photographs that you find require you to go to the originator’s site to view the original photograph, Google doesn’t generally just take you to a library of non-attributed photographs. This is a pretty big hint that you are potentially looking at using someone’s photograph and may need to consider copyright.
In this case, it was a local government entity, the South Gippsland Shire Council, that did this and possibly due to innocence and ignorance. I duly notified the council and said I had no issue with them using the photograph, but would appreciate being asked and attributed when any photograph was used. The council responded and expressed concern over the error and that it would be corrected, but gave the impression that the website in which the photograph appeared was independent of the council. It isn’t and is a council owned and run website.
Rather than amending the photograph and making an appropriate attribution, the council immediately replaced the photograph with another one. I seriously hope that this photograph hasn’t been similarly sourced through Google and used without the appropriate authority. Unfortunately, this is such a common occurrence and copyright holders often only find out by happenstance. The vast majority of individuals simply do not realise what they are doing is wrong, others don’t care, but government entities very much should know what they are doing, as they are regularly informed about such issues. But in other respects, you have to wonder why a simple attribution wasn’t acceptable and the photograph had to be changed to another.
Now I often use photographs and other material not of my own creation in my blog posts, but I always attribute them to the owner (as best as I can discover). I don’t necessarily ask the owner for permission (though I have done this from time to time), as I’m usually using photographs that are either part of a creative commons or ‘fair dealing‘, which is completely ethical and within the law, as they are not used for commercial gain or advertising etc. Fair dealing means you are using the material for one of the following purposes:
- research or study;
- criticism or review;
- parody or satire;
- reporting news; or
- professional advice by a lawyer, patent attorney or trade marks attorney.
Nevertheless, it always pays to be careful with what you use and how they are applied, as there are organisations that carefully scour the internet for websites that may use copyrighted material, innocently or not, and attempt to extract obscene amounts of money. Now some suggest that in order to protect your photographs, you should watermark everything and only display low resolution photographs to discourage stealing. Well yes, that may work, but it certainly diminishes or loses the impact of what you’re trying to convey or display. Things can be taken to the extreme and thus all sense of proportion is lost, as well as quality in what you are producing. And if you’re subtle about it, watermarks and the like can often be easily removed.
Also, all professional photographers embed relevant copyright information into their photographs, which can be easily accessed by right clicking on the photograph that you’ve copied and selecting Properties/Details. This will reveal sufficient information as to whether the photograph is copyright, though even if such details were not included, copyright should always be assumed to apply (which it does). Of course it’s very easy to remove this information from a copied photograph, but that immediately implies that the user was well aware of the copyright and purposely removed this information in order to deceive. Getting caught out doing that is fairly revealing.
Unfortunately, it’s now a fact of life that anything that you post on the internet is potentially up for grabs by those that don’t care or don’t know any better. If you truly have valuable material that you don’t want copied without appropriate recompense or attribution, best not to put it where it can be seen. Or if you do, weigh the benefits of making photographs very difficult to use and put up with the potential negative aspects that doing so raises. And that just becomes another bridge to cross.
At the end of the day, you shouldn’t lose any sleep over such things, as these are really minor blips in one’s life, especially life on the internet. That said, if you spot such infractions, it certainly pays to take reasonable action, but I certainly wouldn’t go looking for needles in haystacks.
Update 1: While not looking for a needle in a haystack, I came across another instance of copyright infringement and this time by The Age newspaper and others. Given that this entailed a completely different set of circumstances and processes to rectify what has happened, I’ve put this into a second story.