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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Stop, Thief!


Strategies and methods for protecting your work and maintaining proper attribution

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Polar bear with second-year cubs, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.

Tech Trending: Photographs That Take Themselves

Q Have you noticed lately all those fine photographs floating around out there, seemingly unattached to any photographer? From the loftiest heights of commercial advertising to photo websites such as EarthPorn and, of course, social media such as Facebook and Google+, beautiful, professional images are everywhere. Have you ever admired one, thinking you've been to that location, wondering what other photographer saw what you saw, only to realize that the photograph you're admiring—that orphan piece of creative work that's so unimportant that no one will give it a name, nothing more than a well-organized bunch of pixels, a pleasing combination of ones and zeros—that photograph is yours?
Every Photographer
Almost Everywhere On Earth


A Well, actually, yes. Recently, our daughter "liked" an anonymous image from EarthPorn on Facebook. It was mine, and she didn't even know it! That hurt, especially because I don't know who posted my image there. Being old school (as distinguished from merely being "old"), I view every unauthorized use of my images as theft, and these days, the problem has me on fire all the time. That said, I don't think it's possible to keep your images from being lifted from the Internet unless you, your family and friends, your clients and any publishers of your work all live in the dark—meaning, somewhere without electricity. And there's a harsh reality to be faced in the digital age: A gazillion photographs have been launched into the webosphere, drifting like pollen across the globe, sometimes taking root in a stranger's blog, in another language—like the unauthorized little trip several of my images took to Spain just last week! How can anything so common and abundant as a photograph have commercial or artistic value? A photograph is like one poppy in a field of millions. It's like one snowflake on Mount McKinley. It's a grain of sand...well, you get the picture, no pun intended. Who cares?

Who Took (And Who Took) All Those Images?
I suppose that if you think of creative activity across the spectrum of human history, most art is anonymous, at least in the long term. But in the context of my history, photographs have artistic and economic value that is, rightly or wrongly, influenced by the reputation of the photographer and the body of work the photographer has produced. There was a time, not long ago, when an ad agency would call a professional photographer for a set of images on a particular subject or style, and the photographer would send them a batch of original slides. If the agency lost or damaged one, they owed the photographer $1,500 each, an industry standard. A well-known photo editor and appraiser actually argued in court that every time a well-known photographer snapped the shutter, the resulting image had immediate value of that same $1,500. I became a professional photographer in an environment that was intensely protective of images and their potential value. So, now, when I see a great image, I want to know who took it, who owns it, and who deserves the credit and whatever money it might earn. And if that image isn't attributed to anyone, then I wonder who took it from the photographer and rendered it anonymous, and whether that photographer cares.

What's Mine Is Mine, And Even If I Let You Use It, It's Still Mine
If you're still with me, you're probably interested in what you can do to strike a reasonable balance between sharing your images (playing nice) and protecting your images from unauthorized or uncompensated use (often viewed today as selfish and greedy). I'll start by saying that I don't know any professional photographer who hasn't experienced outrageous unauthorized uses of his or her images. And, clearly, I don't have all the answers; if I did, I wouldn't have any horrific examples of image theft to share with you. But, assuming that you value your connection to your images, there are basic steps you can take to minimize unauthorized "sharing," emphasize attribution (ownership) and, if you want to go there, set the stage for litigation of photo thievery.

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