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!

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The white lines are firework patterns

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Copyrights exist automatically. As soon being an amateur or maybe professional professional photographer (or anybody, for that will matter) hits the shutter option, all the energy of the actual copyright law has become linked to the photo. Thus, a photographer doesn't need to specify for the photo or maybe on his/her website that this photo is protected by copyright. Unless specified normally, consider a photo to possibly be copyrighted.

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