Signs of the times

Yesterday, two completely unrelated things happened.

First, I saw Petapixel’s news about 500px having been sold to a Chinese company. As a photographer, this piqued my interest, to say the least, and I shared the news with comments to the effect that I’d love to see a well-informed impact analysis on this change in ownership. Before too long, a friend chimed in to ask why I’d care, and I explained my concern that China doesn’t have a great track record with digital rights. I’m frankly quite nervous about trusting a Chinese company to watch over my images until they start treating copyrights a little more seriously.

Today’s second bit of randomness came when a friend changed their cover photo. Really nice photo — in fact, it was pretty damned familiar. So familiar, in fact, that I went back and looked it up, and yes – it’s my shot from a couple years ago.

I’ll be the first to admit this isn’t a spectacularly good photo. It’s not as crisp as I’d have liked, nor as nicely-lit. I don’t believe it’s got a lot of commercial value, nor is it editorially significant. It’s just a nice photo. Knowing all this, had the friend asked, “hey, I love this shot — can I use it as my cover”, I’d have answered “sure – just toss in a link to my site” or words that that effect. As you might guess, though, this isn’t what happened.

So, if I’ve already admitted this shot doesn’t have a ton of commercial value, why do I care, and what does this have to do with 500px’s ownership?

In both cases, I’m miffed not because I’ve incurred a specific financial loss, but because both of these are little harbingers of the erosion of our digital rights. To be fair, only one of them in an actual infraction — in the case of 500px, I’m just worried there might be an erosion of my rights in the future.

None of this comes as a surprise. The slide into digital entitlement has always been felt first and most visibly by musicians, in fact. From the early days of the Internet, “I found it, so I must be able to keep it” has been so prevelant that I believe it’s actually changed public perception. You could argue that the rise of open source software stems from exactly this sort of cavalier attitude to digital rights.

For musicians, this shift has been seismic. According to an article I’ve seen cited a number of times, out of 5,000 artists surveyed, only 6% of their income came from traditionally recorded, distributed music. Other articles echo the idea that not only has recorded music become less significant in terms of overall income, but that individual artists tend to see their income stem from a number of sources – most of which depend on publicly. If the rest of us are living in the gig economy, artists live in the personna economy.

So, what parallels apply for photographers? Obviously, the analog to recorded music is the individual image. All things being equal, we’d expect these to continue to be difficult to protect and difficult to monetize. So, then, do we just give up? Give up all the stuff we’ve worked so hard to produce?

Yeah, probably. I don’t expect to cave all at once — I’ll give up a little bit of a fight on my way down, but realistically, I don’t believe that any of my images in isolation is going to wind up producing an amount of income that could justify protecting these images from any form of digital theft, because the only way to be completely certain an image won’t be poached is to withhold it from the Internet altogether. If nobody ever sees it, nobody can steal it. I’ve got images like that, incidentally, so if you’d like to make an offer for a never-before-published LambertPix photo, drop me a line and we can make a deal.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, this was the picture I found shared without my permission and without crediting my work. I went ahead and edited a couple things I hadn’t earlier, so this one is a little better, in my opinion, than the one I’d posted earlier on Facebook. If you’d like to use it on Facebook, just ask. I’ll probably say yes.

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