Credit where credit is due

August 11, 2012

My friend Audrey recently found herself in the middle of a debate about copyright and fair use. As a photographer and a general technology nerd, I’m pretty interested in that area of the law and its effects on everything from Pinterest to slogans to stickers, and I’ve been watching as this new saga unfolds.

A stolen situation

Here’s a quick rundown. The Portland Press Herald in Portland, Maine, used one of Audrey’s Flickr images in a story. They made very little (if any) effort to contact her, and they didn’t credit or link back to her in their story beyond listing her job title at the time the photo was taken. This frustrated (if not angered) Audrey a bit, so she wrote to them; instead of removing the image from the story, they maintained that the usage of the photo in the article was covered by fair use.

I’m definitely not a lawyer, but I know enough to say that fair use in general is a very, very complicated piece of copyright law – complicated enough that some pieces are still being defined in court cases. (The Internet complicates the issue even more, of course. Stupid Internet.) Let’s leave the legality of the situation to the people who know something about the law and focus instead on what it means for all of us who enjoy taking photos.

Reproduction repercussions

I love capturing and sharing photos. I’ve posted hundreds of photos on my Flickr account and on Facebook; it gives me quite a bit of joy to be able to share events with the people I know and others who attended. What bothers me about this particular situation is that under the Press Herald’s interpretation of the law, there’s no way for me to know whether my photos will be used in one of their stories – and there’s no way for me to tell them not to use my work.

Sure, it’s flattering to have your photo used in a widely-circulated piece. Without any form of credit, though, sharing devalues your time, effort, and talent as a photographer. Their usage of a third-party photo in a piece is an implicit way to say, “We would’ve liked to have one of our staff photographers there, but we don’t have any media from that event. Yours are good enough to use, though.” Shouldn’t the photographer of the work be compensated for their time and effort – or at the very least, credited or contacted about its use?  (Note that, for example, photos taken by PPH staff photographers are all labeled with the photographer’s name. Their work is part of the Press Herald’s brand and quality.)

From my perspective as a photography hobbyist/enthusiast, there are many options for the Press Herald to handle the situation in a better way. Listing the best first:

  1. Compensate Audrey for her work. (This isn’t unreasonable to ask.)
  2. Contact her before the story is published and ask if she minds if her photo is used. (This just seems like good journalism to me.)
  3. Link to her photo on Flickr within the story, but don’t use the photo itself. (This would give her work the traffic for anyone interested in seeing the photo in question, and it would allow people to view more of her work.)
  4. Don’t use the photo at all. (The article itself describes the situation well; the actual photo doesn’t really add much.)
  5. Credit her for the photo, preferably with a link. (This would put her photo in line with the attribution used for other photos in the paper.)

Admittedly I realize that there are different thoughts on the issue, and I can understand that. I decided that I should ask the opinion of someone well-versed in this kind of usage, so I sent an email to the Portland Press Herald’s own reproduction permissions address:

Good morning! I want to write a post on my website about the Gentlemen of the Road show. I really love the photo you have of the promenade on the story at–Sons-on-Thursday.html . I’d like to know if you would mind if I used the photo in the post. I think it would really help to have a good photo on the piece.

Their reply informed me that they don’t allow other sites to use their photos, and they suggested that I link to the story from the post.

I’m glad at least someone there agrees with me.

UPDATE (August 13): For those not following the story closely, here’s where the situation stands. Since the time this post was published, the PPH has removed the response linked here from their site and has replaced the photo in the online version of the original article with a link to the photo on Audrey’s Flickr account. I’ve also heard that they may be compensating Audrey, but they have not offered a retraction or apology for the photo – which, as it turns out, appeared at the top of the August 7th print edition’s front page.