Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Be Generous With Your (Nature Photos) Rights!

A few days ago a nature-enthusiast blogger linked to a humorous "photoshopped" version of an owl photo, something which she found on a humor website. She asked her readers if they knew what species it was. In the comments, one person replied that he did, because he was the owner of the original photograph! Apparently it had been copied and edited by the humor website without his permission. Several other commenters, including the blogger, lamented this apparently commonplace practice.

At the outset, let me here state that I am absolutely, 100% pro-intellectual property rights. I am ethically opposed to all forms of illegal downloading, including songs, movies, photographs, etc. So obviously, I regard the humor website's actions as wrong and a violation of the owner's rights, even though the humor itself was perfectly innocuous (and even though the person whose rights were violated thought the humor was tasteful).

That said, this thread reinforced a hunch I've had over the last several months: it seems to be a widespread view among amateur photographers that if you took a photograph of something, be it a squirrel, tree, sunset, or lunar eclipse, you should cautiously guard that photograph from public use. If someone were to stumble upon it and want to use it, they should have to contact you to obtain permission, and you should demand credit, and maybe even a royalty (especially if they're using your photo for their own profit).

To those who feel this way, I ask: why? (Bearing some qualifications in mind--see the note amended to the bottom of this post.)

When I was a kid, occasionally my dad and I would explore the woods that bordered our backyard. I remember one time in particular, we were curious about the extent of the creek that ran through the woods. Armed with hip-waders and walking sticks, we spent a long afternoon trudging our way upstream. At about a mile north, a short, huffing man came marching toward us at full speed, screaming at us as he approached closer. (Not a scene easily forgotten by a young kid! I was certain he was going to punch my father.) As he came face to face with my dad, he demanded to know, "How would you like it if I wandered onto your property?"

My dad, without missing a beat, held out his hand and introduced himself, saying, "We live down on 595. You are more than welcome!! I've got a garden full of vegetables and there's no way we're going to eat 'em all. You should come on down." Seeing children playing in this man's backyard, my dad added: "And bring your kids!"

My dad wasn't bluffing, nor was he being insincere, as in quick-thinking to calm a tense situation, or to set up a morality lesson for his son. I know, because there have always been neighbors or even total strangers in our yard, picking vegetables, fishing in our pond, or enjoying the flowers. (My dad's occupation puts him in a position where he interacts with dozens of different local clients each day, and whenever someone expresses an interest in flowers, fishing, or vegetables, you can bet he makes it known to them that they they and anyone they care to invite are welcome to come over.)

The lesson of that day has never left me: my father explained to me later that the man who yelled at us was probably just suspicious of us (a new word for me), and needed our reassurance that we meant no harm.

I've since observed that many people are like that man. So if you are at all one of those people, I'm imploring you to let your guard down. This here is not a call for pollyannaism about the human race. I'm not denying that there are shady figures out there. Nor am I saying that the extent of my father's openness is appropriate for everyone. All I'm asking is that you keep some perspective: we're talking about your amateur digital photographs. With all due respect, it's not your bank account number.

And if you see a nature or astronomy photo of mine that you want to use for your purposes (most likely to be found at http://orangecountynaturalist.blogspot.com), please, be my guest! I have only two conditions:

1. It'd sure be nice if you introduced yourself to me, and tell me that you intend to use my photo--only because it's a chance for us to "network". So please, be nice and introduce yourself.

2. As a matter of integrity, you should also be generous with your photograph rights.

Happy copying and pasting!

(Qualification on all of the above: Please note that I'm not referring to professional photographers or aspiring professional photographers who are trying to make a living from their work. That is another issue entirely. I also want to clarify that I'm referring only to astronomy or nature photos--i.e. photos without personal subjects. It's reasonable why someone wouldn't want to give away free access to photographs of a private or personal nature, such as a photo of a family event, etc. I usually post these in a separate, private place anyway).

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