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Monday, January 19, 2009

Stealing Versus Using

Last week, Matt at posted what became a rather provocative article on the ethics of appropriating photography. It generated dozens of comments and a hundred emails--so much so that he has since removed the post. The gist was this: without asking, crediting, or paying for them, Alameda appropriated Matt's photos for their commercial website. Many (all?) remain. It's not surprising that they would do this; Matt's an amazing photographer who is preparing a book of his work.

We live in a world where you can easily snatch a pic or bloc of text and post it on your own site. In some cases we regard this as appropriate, and some cases theft.

This is an example of theft.

I'm not a lawyer and I make an ethical point. My guess is that the law is also on Matt's side on this one (if not the lawyers), but let's not go down that road. We don't need to make a legal case here, just a clear ethical one. Here's how I would characterize it. As a society, we want to strike a balance between encouraging creative innovation and the exchange of information and discouraging the practice of profiting off someone else's work. Bloggers steal profligately from other sites, quoting and using pictures. I regard this as a fair use under certain circumstances: attribution and (where possible) links must be provided when appropriating someone's work. And the use must be non-commercial; that is, you shouldn't be using it to turn a buck. From time to time, I want to grab a picture off a site like Flickr, and when I do, I cite the photographer and link back to the picture I used. Although it's never happened, I'd pull the picture anyone requested that.

But a business is a whole different ballgame. Alameda wanted to use Matt's photography to sell their product. Matt will receive no payment for these profits. Even more egregiously, Alameda didn't cite Matt as the photographer. This falls squarely in the category of exploitation. The ethics are made no worse by virtue of Matt's intention to use his photography in a book, but it's worth noting that it does downgrade his own product. Ethically speaking, stealing is stealing, and stealing from a point-and-shooter like me is just as bad, even though I suffer no additional harm by the degredation of my product. But it does doubly screw Matt.

Alameda should rectify this immediately. Having already used the photography, they owe Matt money along with an apology; simply removing the photos isn't adequate compensation. If they want to keep using the photos, they need to strike a deal with the photographer.

For reasons I don't understand, Matt has removed his original post, which is of course his prerogative. But let's not forget the issue or overlook bad behavior. Alameda needs to make things right. And for other breweries who might wish to scoop up pictures or text from bloggers, a handy tip: just email us and find out whether it's okay. It's not rocket science, just good manners.

[Update. Looks like Matt and Alameda have come to (are in the process of coming to, something) a meeting of the minds, so the above case should probably just be regarded as an example. And boycotts, blood vendettas, and so on can be revoked.]


  1. You wrote: stealing from a point-and-shooter like me is just as bad...

    After Matt's post, I noticed the Obamagang bottle picture from my blog on a couple of sites and a forum, only one of which linked back to me (even then, no explicit attribution).

    It was one of the few pictures I have up that I didn't take myself -- those aren't worth stealing :-) -- it was taken by a friend of a friend and passed along by email. Ironically, I had to temper my outrage, because up to that point I hadn't given the photographer credit myself!

    Jeff, you've been at this a lot longer than I have. How often does someone steal words or images from your blog?

  2. Jeff, you've been at this a lot longer than I have. How often does someone steal words or images from your blog?

    I don't consider it stealing if another blogger uses it for a non-commercial purpose. But good manners would suggest a link back to the original post. For me, that's a very big distinction--using my work for your profit is different than spreading the news about my work. The blogosphere would collapse if we didn't allow the latter.

  3. When Matt took down his post, he explicitly asked that no one mention the content of the removed post in comments on the replacement post. Jeff, your posting seems to violate the spirit of Matt's request.

  4. I don't consider it stealing if another blogger uses it for a non-commercial purpose.

    If it's done without attribution of some kind (preferably a link), then it's plagiarism, even if it's non-commercial.

    In my case, the forum poster wasn't acting as an author, he just wanted to spread the joy. No big deal, though a link would be good manners.

    But the other two users of the photo are advertising-supported "news" sites, not amateur blogs. I was wrong about this one -- it does indeed cite It's Pub Night as the picture source, and that's all I need. The other one gave no attribution, and even did a clumsy edit on the image to obfuscate the source. That's plagiarism. (After I whined about it, the author added a plug -- but no link -- in a comment.)

  5. Bill, you're right--that case you cite is unethical.

    Anon, you can't unfire a gun. Matt put this discussion into the public, and the public is now discussing it. I will honor his request not to continue the debate from his earlier post in his current ones in his comment thread, but this is totally a public discussion now.

  6. Something to consider about why Matt doesn't want to talk about it - it is entirely possible that Alameda responded to Matt by licensing the images. I sure would like to know if they have, because I wouldn't mind drinking some of that Black Bear XX again. But as a photographer (at some level) I can't support a business that knowingly steals photographs.

  7. It probably won't be a problem for people like ourselves, but technically attribution isn't enough to make using other's words or photos legal. You need to get explicit permission unless you fall under fair use.

    Fair use includes educational uses, and short quotes among other things. Copying a post wholesale and then giving attribution is not covered by fair use.

    You mentioned Flickr as an example. Maybe you didn't see fit to be so specific in your post, but Flickr has an advanced search option to search Creative Commons licensed pictures. Creative Commons licenses generally allow others to reproduce photos as long as you give credit. If you're getting pictures from Flickr, I'd advise you stick to Creative Commons licensed photos just to be safe.

  8. Damon, this is not a legal post. However, I think you're wrong to include text and photos in the same category--quoting text has wide latitude. And ethically speaking, I can't imagine folks having a big problem with it.