First of all, I’m not a lawyer. I did study copyright law as part of my MBA, I even studied copyright law in China. Generally when people talk copyright laws online they are talking American copyright laws. There are some international intellectual property law treaties, but a few American corporations have had a large influence on copyright laws, cough, Disney, cough.
Lately I’ve done a lot of reading, some blogging, plus I finally joined Pinterest, all of which got me thinking more about who owns the rights to an image? Generally speaking the person who took the photograph owns the rights to it as “art”. Does this apply to screen shots?
It is possible take a screen shot and crop it so closely that it is identical to the original photo, almost a bit for bit perfect copy. Is a screen shot a photograph, is it original art? Probably not, the reason being in television and film if you take a still of the moving image, I believe the copyright remains with the original creator of the moving image. When you buy a film poster it always says image copyright 20th Century Fox or whatever. In television broadcasts there is always writing at the end saying who owns the video footage. This was part of the DMCA case involving Micheal Crook, where a still image from I believe a Fox TV broadcast was at the heart of the matter. Making a copy of an image and reposting it is how Pinterest and a number of other social sharing websites like Tumblr work.
I recently read an article which made the distinction between law as written and law as practiced. Generally speaking when someone posts or reposts an image online they are not challenging the copyright or intellectual property rights for the image. In the US the Digital Millennium Copyright Act provides an avenue to get copyrighted material taken down quickly by contacting the web host rather than the individual who posted the image. But what if your web host isn’t in the US? Given the litigious nature of some Americans and ever changing laws, even some Americans wonder if they wouldn’t be better off having their website hosted outside the USA.
My web host is located in the US, though I am not American. Many, many web servers are located in the US that host images posted by people who may not hold the copyright for the image and who may not even be American citizens. Even using the mechanism provided in the DMCA it is generally not worthwhile going after every individual who violates copyright law. Given that it is not always easy to prove financial damages were incurred and in many cases wider exposure and incoming links and traffic benefits a website/copyright holder, most people don’t think twice about reposting an image to Facebook or Pinterest.
Just to be on the safe side, companies like Pinterest are altering their usage agreement to make it clear that the end user is legally responsible in ensuring they have the right to post an image. Pinterest’s rapid growth hasn’t been applauded and embraced by all. Flickr in particular seems to be a little choked up. They are by far the largest website I’ve come across, that forbids ‘pinning’ of images, which is a bit odd considering they are an image sharing website. Flickr was built to share images you took yourself, for which you hold the copyright. Pinterest was built to share images you likely found online, for which you in all likelihood don’t hold the copyright. Will more websites opt out of pinning?
I also noticed my Flickr favourites page looks a lot like Pinterest.com. I even took a couple screen shots to show the similarity. I’m a bit too long-winded and paranoid for Pinterest but I keep exploring tools as I build and tweak my miniature painting news aggregator.
Update May 1st 2012
It appears Pinterest and Flickr are friends now. Time to do some pinning of favourited photos on Flickr.
Update August 11th 2012
Google has altered their algorithm to include DMCA violations, some people think it is a step in the right direction, others think a corporation shouldn’t be policing the Internet, regardless people rip off other people all the time on the Internet and the younger they are, the less they are concerned about it…
Update January 15th 2013
An interesting legal case is going on right now in the US concerning image copyright. Basically someone posted photos to Twitter using TwitPic and then those photos ended up on various news image services and in newspapers and other commercial media outlets all over the world. The pictures were of a natural disaster in Haiti. The case is still unfolding, the photographer and rights holder had hoped for a million dollar payday but although the judge seems to be finding in his favour the settlement will likely be a more modest but still significant sum. Regardless legal precedent seems to have been set about taking photos off Twitter and then selling them.
Joseph Baio, Morel’s lawyer, told Reuters today that the case showed commercial news use of Twitter photos is illegal, and the trial will determine what the consequences should be.
Update January 25th 2013
Google has changed how they return results for their image searches. It is definitely more Pinterest-like. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Google’s mobile search app returns images in a grid with minimal whitespace and various width images rather than the formerly ubiquitous uniform thumbnails.
Update February 9th 2013
Here is another strange tale concerning Internet copyright. In this case it isn’t images but Tweets. You own what you tweet, you are legally responsible for what you say, but it is a public forum, people can quote you. This reminds me of when Michael Crook was suing every news organization and blogger who reposted a picture of him appearing on Fox television. I’d never heard of Teri Buhl until she started threatening to sue the Twitterverse, but if your online words and actions remind people of Michael Crook you’re doing the Internet wrong.