Monday, July 09, 2012

“¡Vive Eternamente!” -- My Photo Goes South of the Border

“¡Vive Eternamente!”

I posted this photo on Flickr and in my blog post Ray Bradbury and the Dark Side of the American Dream as my response to the death of the writer who meant so much to me. A few days later I received a request to use the photo to illustrate this article on a website in Medellin, Columbia.  I loved the idea of my photo tribute to Ray Bradbury traveling south of the border.

Filling the gaps in my virtually nonexistent Spanish with Google Translate, I was able to follow the article. It's a graceful tribute to Bradbury that begins with the story of how Ray Bradbury was "knighted" as a boy by the carnival magician, Mr. Electro, who touched him with his electric sword and commanded that he "live forever." Bradbury took the lesson to heart and decided the way to try to live forever was to become a writer. Writer Hernán Ortiz concludes that he succeeded.

Like many photographers I find that many of the images I post on Flickr end up being copied and posted elsewhere, often without bothering to ask for permission (or paying a licensing fee). This seems to be my all-time champion, reprinted 215 times at last count. And nobody has ever asked for permission (Hernán did ask, and graciously). Some give a photo credit; some don't.

All this copying was done for personal use. None of it was what could be considered commercial use. Thus, all of it falls under what should be considered fair use. Nevertheless, when the same thing happens to some photographers, they go ballistic. They're angry that someone has "stolen" their image. They threaten to sue, and sometimes they do -- despite the fact that nothing was actually taken from them. They still have their image. And paying a fee would never have been worth it to a person who copied it for personal use; they would just have selected another picture to express what they were feeling or thinking. (After all, for most people posting a picture on a personal blog isn't much different from clipping a picture out of a magazine and putting it up on the refrigerator or their cubicle wall. And nobody calls that "stealing.")

Me, I feel flattered when a blogger likes my image enough to copy it. It's part of the free flow of information across the Internet. It seems like magic that a photo of mine can travel halfway around the world and be recycled in a language I don't know and may never even have heard of. And if that probably doesn't make it "live forever," at least it extends the photo's reach and allows it to touch more people than it could on just my own websites.

Mandatory Note & Disclaimer Just to Be Perfectly Clear All of what I've said is limited to personal use and does not apply to commercial use. I've gone after people who have used my images commercially and even collected some money from them. (It's one reason I don't use a Creative Commons noncommercial license -- I've found that many commercial enterprises are all too quick to ignore the fine print and feel entitled to use any Creative Commons image.) I routinely deny permission to commercial enterprises that do not pay a fee. If you're going to make money selling someone else's work, you need to pay them. It's that simple. Period.

I sympathize with full-time photographers. It's harder than ever for them to make a living. Equipment is expensive, income is hard to come by. But the great technological threat to their livelihood comes not from the Internet making it possible for people to "steal" their images. It comes from the fact that photographers are competing with literally billions of people who can now take pictures with phones and inexpensive digital cameras. There are so many images floating around in the world that the value of individual images has declined exponentially, literally by a couple orders of magnitude. Stock photos that once sold for hundreds or even thousands of dollars now sell for under ten dollars apiece. Some photographers will continue to prosper. They will do it by adding value in unique ways and filling niches that can't easily be duplicated. They don't have much to worry about. Many of them have also adapted to the Internet and realize that if they have a unique vision and style, repetition on the web -- including the occasional unauthorized use -- is a powerful promotional tool.

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