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Compound Eye

The many facets of science photography

Buzzfeed's viral sharing prompts a necessary stunt

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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.

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

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