Sunday, May 26, 2013

What is Copyright in our Social Media World

I don't know about you, but May is a really busy month in our household.  At the beginning of this month, I flipped to an almost blank calendar page and thought, "Wow!, it's so clear, we are going to be able to catch up on everything we are behind on!" Not so! That calendar page filled up quickly and we are even further behind than we were before.  Oh well, it's been busy but fun.  So, even though I have so much that I need to catch up on, I'm going to take a bit of time to sit down and write this post because I think it's a very important topic that most people are not very aware of nowadays.  Also because, I really don't have an answer for how to approach my current dilemma.

The thing I want to discuss is copyright.  What does it mean and why do we as photographers use it?  Well, a copyright is simply a symbol that reminds us that the image you are looking at is the property of the photographer.  Just like a wedding ring, it states that the image belongs to someone and technically, even if it isn't visible, the image is still protected under copyright.  Just like if a person is married, they are still spoken for even if they aren't currently wearing their ring.  Pictures are actually legally protected by copyright laws whether they bear the symbol or not, at the time of their conception they become the property of the photographer.  By property, I mean that only the photographer has the right to make copies or reproduce the images, unless the photographer sells the rights to another. 

 Over the years I have run into various problems surrounding copyrights.  At first, they were good problems to have.  When I first switched to digital, I used to give my portrait clients disks with their images on them so that they could take them to the lab of their choice to have them printed.  I soon learned that I needed to include a copyright release with the images because even though I had given the disk to the family, the images were obviously professional and the labs refused to print them without a release.  I'm sure this was pretty annoying for the families that were denied prints on the spot, but for me it was a nice problem to have.   Lately, with rapidly improving technology, the problem isn't as nice.   

I first encountered this new obstacle a few years ago.  I was hired to photograph an event celebrating someone's birthday.  The party was wonderful and the images from it were amazing.  I couldn't wait to hear from the family who threw the party, but I never did.  I could see that they had logged into my website to view the images but I was puzzled that they never ordered any.   I actually started to feel bad because they had paid my hourly rate (which covers my time), but I thought they had never received any benefit from it since they had no pictures to show for their investment.  I tried contacting them on several occasions to see how I could make the ordering process easier, but they never answered my messages. Finally, I got a hold of the man who had hired me on the family's behalf and he told me how much the family loved their pictures and how they had made a wonderful scrapbook from them that everyone really enjoyed.  That really puzzled me, since they had never ordered images, how could they have done that?   I went back to my website thinking that maybe I had set something wrong and that they were able to download the images, but that wasn't the case.  I finally figured out that they had taken screen shots and used those to make their scrapbook.   It left me with a sick feeling in my stomach for a long time.  I felt sick not only because they had stolen the images, but also because the quality from a screen shot is far below the standards that I hold for my prints and I didn't like the thought of the poor quality they received.   I know, silly, but I'm not a fan of low resolution prints.  Now, you may be thinking, "Why is it such a big deal if you were paid your hourly rate already.  Why charge more beyond that for the images?"  The reason is that the hourly rate really only covers the time that I am there and some of the time spent editing the images later on the computer.  Culling the images and processing them takes about 4-6 hrs. for every hour I am taking pictures (yes, I have a very fast trigger finger).  There really is little to no profit in the hourly rate.   The profit comes from picture/image sales.   This is standard for a lot of event photographers and is a way of helping the client by spreading the cost out among the other attendees.  Anyway, I learned a big lesson with that job and now, the images on my website have the copyright watermark through the middle of them instead of at the bottom (something my father had suggested at the start of my website, you were right Dad).   I really dislike how this looks and it makes it hard for clients to see facial expressions, but I learned my lesson and just can not afford to leave them unprotected.  

These pictures show the way an image looks on my website now with the © through the center.  They are mostly here so that I don't have a picture-less post.  

Now, enter Facebook.  My newest challenge.  I LOVE giving my clients a sneak peek of their images on Facebook and sometimes on my blog, but there are a lot of considerations when doing this.  At first I was very careful and listened to the suggestions of other photographers who said to make sure that the images I post were less than 500 pixels so that they wouldn't make good prints if someone downloaded them.   I did it, but I was frustrated with how small the images were on the screen and how you really couldn't see any of the detail in them, my images look best BIG.  I also didn't want a huge watermark across my images, blocking them from being seen, so I just decided that I would put a small, unobtrusive copyright down at the bottom left corner, make the images large so they could be seen and then trust people to do the right thing and respect the copyright.  The problem that I am finding with this is not so much that people don't respect the copyright, it's that they don't understand the copyright.  They just don't know what it stands for.  I had a conversation today with a girl, that I really like, about why it's not okay to just download and print the images that have the © symbol on them.  She thought that since I had posted them online and had tagged her in them that I had given the pictures to her.  I think that is probably a common misconception.  We live in a time where technology makes it easy to not only download an image, but most people can print a beautiful full color picture out at home on their computer.  When they are printing at home they don't even get stopped by the people at the lab who know better. 

 I worked in photo labs for many years of my life and I wouldn't even consider copying a copyrighted image.  If an image looked even the slightest bit professional or even if it had been printed at a professional lab with the professional copyrighted paper, we wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole.   There were rarely any exceptions to the copyright rule.   If a client wanted a professional image copied and it was less than ten years old, they would have to contact the original photographer to get permission and the original photographer would have to sign a release for our lab.  Sometimes I forget that most people don't have my background and that the world is a completely different place now.  The ability to print images in your house at your own discretion has really left a lot of people completely uneducated on copyright laws, not that most people were educated on them in the past, but the people who were trained in the printing industry certainly were.  

So where does this leave us now as photographers?  Wanting to share our sneak peeks and favorite images with the public in a way they can be viewed well, but still needing to somehow protect them from being downloaded instead of purchased.  I read one photographer's blog that said they don't share images on social media until the client has purchased them.  Great idea, but it takes away the fun of seeing all of the first comments from friends and family when the image is shared.   I don't know about you, but I LOVE it when I post a sneak peek and the client immediately makes my image their profile picture.  It's a compliment and it's free advertising because my © is right on the image and all of their friends and family can see who took the picture.  I don't particularly love it when they crop out my copyright and then make the image their profile picture, but I'm also not a fan of "the statement" that a lot of photographers add to every image they post.  You know, the one that says, "Please feel free to share this image but don't crop it or alter it in any way."  It's a great idea but it just doesn't fit my personality.  In all honesty, this whole problem doesn't fit my personality.  Or, maybe it's my personality that is the problem.   The truth is that I would love to be able to give my images away to anyone and everyone who wanted them, I just can't afford to do that because the truth is that with every image I give away, I am taking time away from my family.  All of the images take time to create as well as to process.  So, even though I often wish I could give all the images away, I just can't, it's not fair to my husband or my children because not only does it take away the extra money that could be used to help with bills, it also takes me away from them and that's just not okay.  So, how do I let people know that the copyright is on the images because they are valuable and it's not okay to just download and print them?  Maybe "the statement" is the way to go because it does educate people on your expectations.  I heard Michael Port speaking in an online seminar the other night and he said, "Resentment comes from unmet expectations."  That is so true in any relationship, not just business ones.  I tell couples all the time that communication is key and that it's not okay to get mad at each other for not doing something you wanted the other person to do if you didn't communicate that you wanted it done, people can't read minds.  So, here it is, my first step in trying to communicate my position on copyrighted images posted online- it is not okay to download and print them if they are for sale on the photographer's website.  It violates the law and just like making unauthorized copies of movies, it is stealing.  

I think that my personal solution for now will be to go back to the 500 pixel images on social media sites until a better solution presents itself.   Has anyone else come across this problem?  What are your thoughts?


  1. I think "the statement" sounds nice. I would be wary of those type of things if they sound mean, but I read it as a thoughtful way to let others know to respect the copyright.

  2. Thank you midaia. The more I think about it, the more I agree. Thank you for your comment.