Friday, October 28, 2011

Share your images freely - you have no excuses

This week is Diwali in India. An extremely colourful festival of the country - one that celebrates the victory of good over evil; I believe it represents some of the greatest inequalities of our nation. Don't get me wrong - Diwali is like Christmas for many Indians. It's a time for family and a time to be happy. At the same time it shows what a great divide exists in our society. While one part of the society showcases its opulence by lighting fireworks worth thousands of rupees, another part of society still sleeps hungry and earns less than two dollars a day. While some children spend all evening in new clothes and launch fireworks into the sky, several Indian children have been slogging away in the same factories that produce these fireworks. While society brandishes its wealth by causing noise and air pollution this year, we lose several plants, birds and insects to this rampage by human kind. As you can tell, I have a very different perspective to Diwali from most Indians.

Anyways, let me get to the point of this blogpost. Last week I reached out to a very respectable wildlife photographer and made him a request. I noticed that his pictures had really huge watermarks which he'd placed to protect his work from copyright infringement. I asked him if he could consider opening up his work a little more and he revealed to me what he was apprehensive of. His concerns were quite valid and as an amateur photographer I'd like to share them with you. In addition I'd like to share some other concerns I've heard from photographers who've been reluctant to open up their work. But before that, let me explain some basics about intellectual property.

Copyrights and Licensing

A copyright as the word indicates is the exclusive right to make copies of a piece of work, to distribute it, to modify it and to create derivative works. When you take a photograph, you automatically gain the copyright for it and it's upto you to share those rights with others. No one can use your photograph until the time you either grant them the right to do so. You can grant people all or some rights by using a license. There are three traditional ways around this :
  • Now quite often you'll give people the entire picture which means that you've shared all your rights.
  • You could give them the picture with an informal agreement, in which case if there is an infringement you'll have trouble explaining your agreement, especially if you have no legal skill.
  • You could use a custom license, and while this has it's advantages, it increases complexity, because you need to understand the legalese behind it.
The simplest way out however is to use a Creative Commons license. You can retain whichever rights you want to retain and give out the remaining rights. I won't get into the details of the creative commons scheme - you can choose a license that suits you by using the Creative Commons license chooser. At the heart of the system though, is the one thing that most artists care for - credit and attribution. Every creative commons license requires the licensee to give you credit for your work. With that basic information in mind, let's look at some of the arguments people have against openness.

Argument 1: People have copied my work and given me no credit

I've heard this complaint often and here's what I'll say. Jerks will always be jerks. Regardless of how much you watermark and protect your pictures, it's very easy for theives to steal your work if they want to. Take a look at this one minute video to see how easily I removed the watermark from the above picture. Also be mindful of the principle of fair use. Anyone who is using your picture for the purpose of research, criticism, teaching, commentary, news reporting or other such purposes are fully entitled to use your picture without seeking your permission as long as they attribute back to you. By placing a watermark on your pictures, you make it difficult for the rest of human kind from using your work for such purposes. Given that people will steal if they need to no matter what you do, does it make sense to make fair use difficult?

Argument 2: I'm not required to use a Creative Commons license

Absolutely - you could just keep all rights reserved and let people ask for permission each time that they need your pictures. Do remember though that this only creates friction. The more the barriers to use, the less your pictures will be used. Now you could argue this is good, but again remember that only if your pictures can go far and wide will people actually know you.  Most geeks know Linus Torvalds - there's a good reason for that. It's because Linux and Git are open source and they take his name far. But even with photography, you don't need to go far - Trey Ratcliffe, Jonathan Worth and Kalyan Varma are great examples of people who are popular because of their openness.

The advantage of choosing a creative commons license is that this makes your approach towards sharing explicit. You can be very explicit about what people can do with your photos and what they need your permission for.  For example, people can use, share, modify and redistribute my photos as long as they attribute back to me and they don't use my work for commercial purposes. I wouldn't mind earning some money, so if there's an opportunity for something like that I'd love to have a share.

Argument 3: But what if I want to use my work for a commercial purpose?

This is the beauty of the creative commons scheme. You can reserve the rights that you consider important to yourself. If  you'd like to preserve your work as is, you can reserve the right to make derivative works. You can reserve the right to commercialise your work. You can share a low resolution version of a photo liberally and reserve the high resolution version for commercial printing. It's a very flexible system.

As you can see, thieves shouldn't deter you from sharing your work with the world. The Internet can be a much better place if photographers in particular share their creative representations with the world without fear. If you are a photographer or create digital media of some kind, please read the power of open for inspiration. If you haven't been sharing openly, you'll surely find some stories that strike a chord from that book. And by the way, don't be scared to visit the link - it's a free book.

Do you have other fears about sharing your work? Please post them in the comments section of this post and I'll do my best to answer them for you. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Three antipatterns to protect your learning community from

I'm back from China and it feels great to be back home finally. China's a great place that I recommend everyone tries to visit at least once in their lifetime. That said, if you are hooked to the internet then you've got to be prepared to sacrifice some of that during your visit. So with about 30 days of no access to my blog, several of Google's apps and Twitter or Facebook, socialising on the web was a bit of nightmare.

Anyways, I got back last week and went on an amazing birding trip to Ganeshgudi. In birdwatching parlance, a bird you see for the first time in your life is a called a 'lifer'. My friends Raji, Kannan, Sandeep and I lost count of the number of times we saw a bird and shouted the word 'lifer' to each other. An amazing biodiversity hotspot in the Western Ghats, Ganeshgudi afforded sightings of about a 110 different species of birds. If you're interested, you should look up my photographs. I wasn't looking at photography as a goal on this trip. I wanted to use my camera as a bit of a documentation tool for this trip. I'll be back there soon and then I'll perhaps move around with a monopod and try to get better shots.

Three pillars of successful communities

Speaking of the birding trip, all three of my friends that came with me were folks I know from a naturalists' community that I participate in. It's been an enriching experience being a part of that group. I believe that successful learning communities are founded on three important pillars:
  • Sharing and Altruism: The most successful communities are where people participate because they believe that sharing what they know helps others and they believe that they'll be better off if others share what they know as well.
  • Feedback: In his Last Lecture, Randy Pausch said, "Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you and care." Communities that have a healthy culture of sharing feedback are likely to learn and grow better.
  • Respect: As a fundamental value in most meaningful human relationships, respect has to be out there as one of the fundamental building blocks of successful communities. Communities that respect experience and the lack of it alike and can create safety for people to participate are likely to see a lot of meaningful traffic.
As I was thinking about these three pillars, I've been thinking of three very common antipatterns I've observed on online communities that I'd like to share with you. If I'm running a community, I'll probably avoid these like the plague and I really hope that you do too.

Hero worship

Every community has it's heroes and top contributors, but to elevate these individuals to god-like status is an absolute no-no. I remember that a few days back on a birding community on Facebook an experienced wildlife photographer posted a beautiful photograph of a bird. He'd also posted a write up on the bird. Everyone had great stuff to say about the image and the write up. That being said, there was  problem. The photographer had copy pasted the write up from Thomas Jerdon and had done nothing to attribute to the great naturalist. I was surprised that no one had called him out on this. I have very little tolerance for plagiarism and un-deserved praise gathering, so I had to call him out. This however led me to notice how several of the established photographers and naturalists on the group received nothing but fulsome praise. There was hardly any useful feedback for these folks. Now this is a problem. How does someone with expertise grow and learn if they receive no feedback?

At ThoughtWorks, we have our heroes in people like Ola Bini, Martin Fowler and Jim Highsmith. That doesn't stop us however from sharing our views openly with them, even if we're at odds with how they think. That's what makes the ThoughtWorks community so awesome. Think about where your community suffers from hero worship. If so, you need to fix that soon.

Boorish behaviour

Some months back, I wrote an article about behaviour on social media. A respectful community handles disagreement and feedback respectfully. Often people will say or do things that may or may not be correct in our opinion. It's crucial though that we convey our opinions in a manner that doesn't undermine someone's intelligence and doesn't humiliate them on a public forum. Let me explain.

A few days back one of the members on a naturalists' forum mentioned how he'd attracted a crested bunting by throwing food grains and then lying in wait to snag a photograph. One of the more experienced members of the forum was furious with this. Baiting is generally a frowned upon practice amongst naturalists and for good reason too. The experienced member laid into the photographer and gave him a public dressing down on the forum.

I felt a bit odd about that angry response. I wrote back to this person explaining that while the actions were wrong, the photographer perhaps didn't mean any harm. I explained that by berating someone in public he'd not only insulted that individual, but made the community environment unsafe for genuine, well intentioned mistakes. After all, mistakes are a great way to learn!

Thankfully the experienced member understood my point and immediately wrote back on the group apologising for his outburst and explaining why he felt strongly about the concept of baiting for photography. I'm pretty sure this made the original poster feel a lot better. This was a story that had a happy ending, but a lot of such stories end with just bad behaviour that goes unnoticed. If you're running a community, this is something to be aware of. Remember - good, respectful behaviour creates a safe environment for people to contribute and learn from their mistakes. It also creates a healthy environment to share feedback.

Hoarding over sharing

If you're a member on any wildlife forums, you'll see a lot of people sharing photographs with copyright notices that look like this:

"Copyrighted by _____________ and may not be used in any form,website or print media without written permission of the Photographer.For any enquiry for the photographs please contact _______________."

You know my views about this. Communites are about sharing and restrictive copyrights are about hoarding in the hope of maximising value for an individual. They have no place in learning communities. I'm amazed why people even bother posting restrictively copyrighted work on online forums. Is it just to tease people with a 'see, don't touch' approach from museum culture? Are these contributors so full of their own work that they believe they're better than all of the awesome, successful people who make money despite sharing freely?

This is a simple problem to solve, and yet something that's not easy. It takes talking to people individually, and high standards for sharing in the community. It's quite easy to ignore, but in my opinion this is a stink to watch out for in just about any community.

Over the next few weeks I want to try a few different articles on this blog. In particular I want to focus on photography for elearning media. I've been experimenting with photography over the last few years or so and I wouldn't mind helping elearning professionals select gear, understand the technology behind phototgraphy and play around with the composition and post processing. While I've almost made up my mind to do a series on this, I'd like to know if you think this could be a valuable thing to cover on this blog. I look forward to hearing from you - either on this post or on any other channels you're connected to me on. Until next week, happy learning!
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