Let’s talk about Copyright.

Posted on October 15, 2012 in Blog Post, Editorial, Photography, Stock Images

An image banned from Dreamstime.com because of our screwed up copyright system.

The Milwaukee Art Museum as seen from Wisconsin Avenue.

As some of you may know, I often sell photographs and illustrations as stock images on Dreamstime.com. In order to do this, you need to upload high quality images, which must be approved along strict criteria by a panel of editors at the site, a review process that can take days.

A few months ago I was notified by Dreamstime.com that seven of my images, including the one above, which had previously been accepted for use on the site, having originally gained the editors approval, would now be rejected for a very odd reason.

The images were all of the Calatrava Wing of the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Their reason for rejecting these, after having accepted them was:

– File approved by accident. We apologize for the inconvenience but the image needs to be removed.
– The image contains elements that might be protected by copyright/trademark (logos, brands, specific buildings etc.), can identify a property/product (letters, numbers), or could raise usage problems, therefore it doesn’t qualify as a RF stock image. Analyze the photo closely and remove these elements if possible or try to obtain a property release.

Knowing that sometimes images cannot be sold as Royalty-Free Commercial images, because of copyright issues, there is always the chance to sell the image under a Royalty-Free Editorial License. Ultimately I would get the same amount for each sale, but the person who purchases the image would have stiffer limitations as to their use once purchased. The Editorial license stipulates that:

“The high-resolution images that you download with the editorial license may be used to illustrate truthful articles or broadcasts appearing in magazines, newspapers or any other editorial context, in either printed or electronic media. Buying the high-resolution image (purchasing the license) does not transfer the copyright. You may not claim that the image is your own and you may not sell, license for use, or in any way distribute the image. Click here for Credit line requirements.”

Knowing how much time it would take to re-upload seven images, and update their descriptions, categories, tags, etc., I was not at all happy about it. So I complained:

Are you kidding me? If you’re concerned about the inconvenience, then switch the license to Editorial. For crying out loud, I don’t want to have to submit these again, just switch it over. This was your mistake, not mine.

– Anthony

Dreamstime then replied:

Dear contributor,

Thank you for contacting us.
Unfortunately we cannot accept images with the Milwaukee Art Museum even if submitted as editorial. Sorry for this inconvenience, but this is a new policy that we have to apply on review.

Thank you for choosing Dreamstime.

Best regards,
Constantin Opris
Photo editor – Dreamstime

I found this odd, as I did not know that a copyright on a building would extend to photographs or likenesses of the building. What this essentially means is that the architecht or owner of the copyright de facto owns the right to any images taken of the building, even if they didn’t know it was taken, had nothing to do with it’s creation, and yet could restrict the use of such images. Now if that sounds like crap to you, it gets worse. As I looked into the matter, I discovered just what a mess our copyright system is today.
The first stop I made in my research was to Wikipedia, and then to the website concerning copyright law in the US. The government run website states the following:

Does copyright protect architecture?

Yes. Architectural works became subject to copyright protection on December 1, 1990. The copyright law defines
‘architectural work’ as ‘the design of a building embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings.’ Copyright protection extends to any architectural work created on or after December 1, 1990. Also, any architectural works that were unconstructed and embodied in unpublished plans or drawings on that date and were constructed by December 31, 2002, are eligible for protection. Architectural designs embodied in buildings constructed prior to December 1, 1990, are not eligible for copyright protection. See Circular 41, Copyright Claims in Architectural Works.

– http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-protect.html

Now, since the Calatrava wing of the Milwaukee Art Museum was completed in 2001, it thereby qualifies for such protection. Further, not ownly can we not photograph it without giving up the rights to that photo, we cannot draw or paint an image of the building either.

Which is ridiculous.
(In fact it inspires me to protest such restrictions by going out to paint an image on site. Soon…)

Now, my legal argument in response to this would be that I’m really not painting the building, I’m describing in paint the effect of the light as it bounces off the building and resonates on my retinas. I really don’t see how the copyright owner can retain so much control.

The complicated history of copyright law

The ever expanding power of copyright

(I’m drawing a lot of links from Reason.com here because they have some excellent and cojent material)

The chief bullies in this debate are the RIAA and other media producers and broadcasting corporations such as Viacom.

What’s scary is that they are using these laws to force the hand of sites like YouTube and Google to share information on their users identities and viewing and downloading habits. Big brother anyone?

The problem I have with this is that not every illegal download directly equates to a lost sale or lost revenue. In fact, some copyright infringement can actually add to the value of the original work and increase sales of the original.

The problem gets worse when you take into consideration copyright laws in other countries. Particularly those who enable the photographer of a copyright-free image to own the copyright of the digital image of it, and require payment for its use.

Just to demonstrate how blatantly some of these companies are bending the original intent of copyright protection, your own personal DNA is now in jeopardy.

But if you really want to read about some crazy copyright cases, visit this page.

And if you want to see what’s on the legal horizon, visit this page.

Fortunately there have been some decisions that have allowed for a sane use of material such as the links on this page. (Once again, the porn industry makes for legal precedent)

A Return to Sanity

Now, I understand the need to protect creative work. Believe me, I’ve been on both sides of this issue. It really galls me sometimes to find images that I worked on for dozens if not hundreds of hours, being used without my permission by people too lazy to make their own. But there have to be limits.

I am of the strong personal opinion that no genetic material (including DNA) should be permitted to be copyrighted, trademarked, or patented. When you look at the damage that Monsanto has done to the food industry, suing farmers out of existence for having the audacity to let their crops germinate with Monsanto’s wind-blown seed, I think we’ve had quite enough of that.

I am also opposed to some of the more drastic measures being suggested by progressive minded legal scholars, such as the Orphan Works legislation. Yet such ideas come with severe costs to those like myself, who live off of the fruits of their creativity:

What’s to be done?

The only thing we really can do is get educated about copyright, pay attention to what Congress is up to, and press those in office to protect our rights, and inject reason into the existing laws.

Further Reading:



This was recently posted on Reason.com (obviously a great source for this type of discussion, I highly recommend it). It was too relevant not to include.