Not a Difficult Concept: Don't Take It if it's Not Yours

Second of a short series. Summary of and commentary on some talks at ScienceOnline 2014

Two of the sessions I attended involved legal and ethical issues of content use online. One was a Q&A session with an intellectual property lawyer and the other was a session entitled “Combatting Online Parasitism”.

The legal “advice” (which, disclaimer: does not actually constitute legal advice) confirmed several things I already knew; I had read up on copyright some years ago when I started trying to get cartoons published. The big concept that both talks had in common was this general idea:

If you didn’t create the work, you don’t control the copyright to it. You are NOT free to use it without permission.

There are some caveats. Some content creators don’t own the copyright — it could be a “work for hire”, i.e. it’s your job to create the content and your employer owns it, or (like me), you work for the US government, and content created for work carries no copyright at all. It’s also possible to transfer copyright (must be done in writing), and some content is in the public domain. Some content carries easy-to-use licensing, such as creative commons.

In the parasitism discussion, I think it was agreed that pictures and artwork are generally abused more than written works, though that does happen (some sites are just bots that mirror other sites), and Twitter is where a lot of the image-copying abuse takes place, since it’s so easy to just link to a photo and post it. It’s so commonplace that there is little social stigma attached to the act. The common justification “but you get free exposure” doesn’t fly as an excuse — it’s the copyright holder and only the copyright holder who gets to make that decision.

There are several Twitter accounts where all they do is link photos and artwork, and very often with no attribution and probably without permission. The two are actually separate issues.

Attribution does not solve copyright, it solves plagiarism. It is not a cure for infringement

That means that simply posting an image credit does not get you off the hook for stealing the image. (Using the lay definition of “stealing”. I’m not entertaining the semantic argument here that intellectual property theft falls under civil law and therefore is technically not stealing. It’s still illegal, and wrong.) Giving credit is better than not giving credit, but absent permission as discussed above, it’s still a copyright violation.

There were a number of people in the room who had had their work used without permission, and I was one of them. I’ve seen my cartoons show up in various places on the web — on an academic blog, in a newsletter (where they had the audacity to say “used with permission”). A few times I’ve had cartoons appear on popular Facebook pages, and in no instances did they ask. It’s not like I would have declined, but they should still ask.

On the other hand, I should point out that’s I’ve had a number of requests over the years to use my cartoons in academic talks and even in a book, so there are a lot of people out there doing it right. I almost always say yes to such requests, and generally offer higher-resolution copies of the work, but limiting the quality of available works doesn’t do much to combat online abuse. (it might work in the cases where print quality or magnification is needed)

Another way of stating the above is

www does not mean public domain

So, what do do about all this?

For some of us in the audience, a missing attribution was the primary problem rather than the lack of permission (which they would have been happy to give), so simply contacting the people works in some of these cases. Some abusers simply aren’t aware of the law, and are happy to comply. Others, not so much — there were some anecdotes about attribution being posted for the one case, but no change in overall behavior of the site.

When a simple request fails, public shaming can work. It turns out that some vigilante-esque negative publicity can go a long way, according to some of the stories that were told. It was suggested that a twitter hashtag (#picbatman was mentioned) for “attribution rangers” would help rally folks to bring attention to some abusers.

There was also some lamenting that some of the larger names online don’t take attributions and copyright infringement seriously. “Takedown” letters go to the service providers, not the sites themselves, and formal legal action may be too involved for an individual. To me this is especially disappointing; there are entities out there that are very protective of their own intellectual property but seemingly not as vigilant when it comes to matters of infringing others’ IP.

I think the general mood was that while getting permission is the proper thing to do, using works without attribution feels much worse. (This may reflect a room demographic of people whose job is not primarily creating such content and who don’t have employers with resources to fight the copyright battle.) In that regard, one of the ending sentiments was

Crediting others for their work costs you nothing


Edit to add (3/14) Post by Matt Shipman with some tips and links: Science Communication and the Art of Not Stealing


2 thoughts on “Not a Difficult Concept: Don't Take It if it's Not Yours

  1. Thanks for this. It’s something I think about a lot, since I often use comics and other images when I teach. May I share this article with my students?

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