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What Getty Can Teach Us About Copyright

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


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Last week Getty announced that they would release 35 million of their copyrighted images for editorial and commentary use with a handy embed tool. The system works a lot like the embed tool in YouTube and Vimeo videos – although the image can appear anywhere, it is very clear where it originated from and it’s easy to click through to the original source. While bloggers and journalists are giddy at the thought of a massive library of free, high-quality images, photographers are not so sure it ultimately bodes well for image creators’ bottom lines.

However, the move is in line with a larger movement afoot regarding visual content online. When print media was king, photographers and artists regularly collected reuse fees when a publication featured their image. The terms of these agreements were easy to define by setting limits on the size of the image, the duration of use, the number of times it was reproduced, and so on. But online publishing blurred those clear-cut terms and in doing so, upturned a very well established system for compensating visual creatives.

Today, an image that accompanies a print article at a magazine like Scientific American often also appears online. If it does, it may be pinned, retweeted, or reblogged on platforms that depend upon the ease of sharing to create buzz. Essentially, this translates to the artist and the original publisher losing absolute control of the work. One could argue that the image creators could charge for each and any of these uses, but it doesn’t make much sense, seeing as this model of sharing is more akin to gossiping at the water fountain about must-see movies than it is to publishing something for which you charge a subscription fee. And what is difficult to measure but impossible to deny is the power of reaching thousands or even millions of people when an image catches on and goes viral.

So creators have begun to explore letting their work be used for non-commercial uses – on blogs, on pinboards, etc. – with one major caveat. Image sharing without attribution does nothing to advance the artist’s cause and is therefore useless to us. If only there were a fool-proof way to automatically attribute images back to the source, sharing images openly in non-commercial circumstances might increase advertising reach without costing a penny (enter Getty). Time will tell if it’s worthwhile, but Getty has perhaps taken a first step to institutionalize a practice that many creatives are adopting in various forms already.

On the one extreme is artist Gwen Seemel (featured on Symbiartic for her book Crime Against Nature), a fine artist who releases all of her work into the public domain. In a charming video she explains her reasoning:

Seemel has an interesting point in that much of what we are afraid of as creatives is losing control of our work when we should perhaps be focusing on the benefits of increasing our audience and gaining traction for our work. But overall I think her stance is naive. Fundamentally, it depends on a culture where the standard is to protect creators’ work – no creator would be able to rally their online networks to demand attribution or compensation on behalf of a beloved artist whose work was “stolen” if there were no expectation that works belong to the person who creates them and that people should be able to make a living off the ideas that they generate. Living in a copyright-free world would produce the kind of experience that Susan Marie Frontczak has endured where an image of her reenacting Marie Curie’s life work is being used on everything from foreign stamps to bobbleheads without her seeing a dime for her efforts.

If you accept Seemel’s premise, there is no middle ground between sharing your work smartly and giving up your copyright entirely. Put bluntly, this stance is wrong. A middle ground does exist and many creatives are using it to their advantage successfully. Austin Kleon’s most recent book, Show Your Work, cuts to the heart of this matter. In it, he touches on all the hallmarks of a productive sharing strategy. His stance: use social media platforms to think out loud, to engage people in your process, to let them into your studio and make them feel invested in what you’re doing. By showing this type of generosity, you will increase your fan base who will, in turn, support you. But for the love of a living wage, hold onto your copyright, for that is what will allow you to make money!

The power of the internet is that it allows you to infiltrate huge geographical areas to find a tiny niche audience that you could never replicate if you were just knocking on doors in your physical community. If you succeed in getting people invested in your work and your story, they will create a market for you and support what you do. And if you’re really lucky, you might find that your niche is bigger than you thought. What Getty and internet savvy artists like Kleon are trying to show us is that increasing your reach by sharing what you do in ways that it can be traced back to you is not threatening to your bottom line. On the contrary, it is just good marketing.

What to Show by Austin Kleon

What to Show, from Austin Kleon's new book, Show Your Work

Kalliopi Monoyios About the Author: Kalliopi Monoyios is an independent science illustrator. She has illustrated several popular science books including Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within, and Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Find her at www.kalliopimonoyios.com. Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

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





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  1. 1. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:28 am 03/17/2014

    I think the Author should look how it is done in China.

    Chinese don’t respect copyright, but Chinese artists somehow manage. Perhaps imitating them is the way to survive in internet-dominated world?

    Link to this

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