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Buzzfeed’s viral sharing prompts a necessary stunt

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A photographer is suing Buzzfeed for $3.6 million.

The infringement itself is so standard for Buzzfeed as to barely be worth reporting. Kai Eiselein’s photo of a soccer player was included, without his permission, in a Buzzfeed list. From there the image spread to several dozen other sites, as Buzzfeed’s business model is designed to promote. Similar stories happen all day, every day, on hundreds of viral sharing sites around the internet.

Eiselein is not going to be awarded $3.6 million, of course. I suspect even he, privately, doesn’t value his actual damages at more than a few thousand. But money is not what this lawsuit is about. It is a publicity stunt, and one that needed to happen. Piddly claims for $2k aren’t going to make enough headlines to get people talking about artist abuse.

Damages from Buzzfeed’s sharing model are real, if not $3.6 million worth of real. The pace of the internet, and the conversely slow pace of the DMCA takedown process, make damages from viral sharing of copyrighted material inevitable. By the time an artist locates the infringement, composes a takedown request, and waits several days for a response, Buzzfeed has already reaped all the significant page views and advertising dollars. Meanwhile, the artist has received precisely zero percent of the revenue earned off their work and is faced with weeks of tracking down the hundreds or even thousands of illegal copies that, in the intervening days, spread across the internet. Since the vast majority of artists are self-employed with no legal staff, pursuing damages is impractical. It’s an abusive system stacked, as are so many of our institutions, in favor of the powerful.

The problem isn’t that the Buzzfeed model is illegal. It’s that our present IP system encourages only two types of enforcement: 1) nonexistent, or 2) full nuclear. Artists have to either accept that they won’t be paid, or threaten ridiculously massive lawsuits in the hopes of negotiating a settlement that approximates actual damages. Most creators just bear the extra cost.

Until meaningful reform arrives with a system of fast, effective IP enforcement and reasonable small penalties, we will continue to see widespread violation of artists’ rights punctuated by the occasional ludicrous IP lawsuit. If Kai Eiselein’s million-dollar soccer girl helps move us in the right direction, all the more power to him.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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  1. 1. Jambe 12:54 am 06/20/2013

    I don’t mind fines in principle but I don’t like what they entail here. To know if people are infringing we must spy on everything they share. Your photography is excellent and you deserve payment for it, but not at the cost of writing Big Brother into our networks.

    This is not a publicity stunt that needed to happen; it’s a bald money-grab, and it won’t change anything. The monetary value of media does not increase with popularity. What actually increases in value is the service of the photographer (supposing anybody can figure out who it was). If you’re a commercial photographer and you don’t want your work misappropriated, either:

    1) use obtrusive watermarks on low-res samples, and arrange them such that they can’t be trivially removed, or

    2) never put it on the internet.

    (2 is obviously better than 1, because 1 has a huge loophole)

    Anything else is naive at best and knowingly self-destructive at worst. You don’t coat yourself in fish blood and jump into a reef expecting no sharks. If there were some sensible, non-HAL 9000 method of ensuring copyright adherence, then I’d be all for it. Alas, there is no way to “ensure” it; we can only “encourage” it.

    Regardless of how well we do on the encouragement front, we’ll always have to tolerate low-volume sharers and tactically dive-bomb the high-volume offenders, because networks and transmission protocols will always change faster than they can be policed.

    It is conceivable that we can devolve into an Orwellian surveillance state in a futile effort to increase the economic viability of content producers, but I don’t think it’s a good idea (and I wouldn’t want to be party to such an invasive scheme, anyway).

    Artists’ lives have always been lives of struggle; this is a pretty widespread realization. Only a tiny percentage (a fraction of a percent) of arts-based workers are financially secure through said work. That’s why “I do it for love!” connotes such poignancy in ironic situations, no?

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