As I grow older and begin to recognize the fallacies and contradictions in my belief system, I begin to think hard about my stand on lots of moral issues and indoctrinated beliefs I may have held. One such issue that has been bothering me is the issue of using a person’s work without the their consent. Consent is a powerful thing. It has the power to determine if a particular action is justified or not; It also has unnecessary repercussions.
I shall state my predicament using an example.
Person A claims that a popular Media Company has used their photograph without properly citing the source. Person A also claims that all rights on the image were reserved.
This is usually followed by about 1000 Retweets of this until the guilty party is either forced to take down the material or print an apology of sorts, and cite the proper source. I agree with Lawrence Lessig, who in his book claims, that most new mechanisms of delivery and production of content provide a very hazy boundary about what information is free for consumption vs what still obeys traditional property rights. In the 70′s, using another photographer’s photo would mean either making a physical replica or using a photo-of-a-photo and painfully reproducing the content. Move 40 years ahead, a search on your popular search engine gives you a never ending list of professionally shot photos , most of which can be appropriated for any purpose with ease. Its again a difference between the mechanics of committing a crime. In the 1970′s plagiarizing a photo would be a long and arduous process that would make the person involved feel like he/she was committing a crime. In the present, using a stock image or an image found on popular sites like Flickr, Picasa etc is trivial. It is so quick that people do not feel guilty about what they are doing. We also don’t look at any activity that we perform on an everyday basis as a crime. Here are some questions we need to ask :
- Are we wired to think that downloading and using a photo available on say a Google/Yahoo website as a crime.
- Do you think twice about copying movies or music from some friends hard disk?
- A simple act of adding a quote to your email signature, writing a philosophical status update on facebook, quoting a poem excluding the author is in itself a violation copyright.
- What about retweets? Don’t you see a rationale as to why twitter introduced the new ReTweet architecture where the tweet appears along with the original user.
We are not wired to think of any of the above acts as a criminal activity. We are in fact surprised when we are unable to download music from an iPod back into a PC. I shall now try to formulate my question:
Should the person X , who claims person/organization Y has used his/her copyrighted work, be allowed to take the moral high ground in the information age?
This would be morally justified if the claimant has never used a stock image, downloaded music or movies, copied stuff to/from an external Hard Disk, watched pirated movies, uses genuine software (Windows, Office, Games etc) . Is such a claim even verifiable?
Creative Commons is a very good effort in this direction. But the enforcement and delivery mechanism of these licenses are pretty poor themselves.Lets take a small example: A random search on google images throws up this page. Lets look at how Google informs the user about the risks of using this image.
This isn’t an attack on Google. Almost all photo sharing sites , image search sites have such enforcement and/or awareness policies. The only sites that do protect images are the ones that sell stock photos. But people are experts at getting rid of the digital watermark.
My 2 cents: There are a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to property rights in the context of digital media. There are also people who believe that they should be credited for work that is inspired by their work. If such an extremist statement were to be considered we would not have movies like Ghajini made, or musicians like Anu Malik and Pritam. We need to find answers to these hard questions, fortunately we have code thats on the side of the enforcers. We can deliver photos and videos in a way that cannot be plagiarized. We can build enforcement mechanisms to stop the so called abuse of digital media. But, please, all you people who outraged at TOI using an uncredited image, please look at your own information consumption habits. In a fair democracy, no one person is greater than the other. One person’s needs, responsibilities and actions are not more important than the others. In my case, taking a stand on this issue will be tough. Until I can decide what side I am on, I shall stay quiet. Oh wait!
Update : I forgot to mention Yahoo’s Image Search platform that provides filters to only show images where the “Author allows for ReUse” and in that for commercial and non-commercial purposes. Great utility.