Digital Copyright: The 404 Page of Photography Market — An interview with Leila Iruzun
You’re walking on the beach with your DIY kite in your hand. The sand is sparkling, and the sun is a flaming golf ball in the sky. You let the line out to hold the kite up — and the kite sails in the sky.
Suddenly a strong wind howls through the beach. The string is slipping away from your hand. And your handmade kite flies away. Hours and hours of work carried away…
Sharing pictures online feels the same for photographers publishing quality work.
But before we dive into the topic, let me ask you a question: how many times do you check your phone every day? 10 times, 30 times, 70 times, perhaps? The answer is a lot.
Now, if you turn to a photographer and ask them how often their work gets republished without their consent, the odds are that you’ll get the exact answer: A LOT.
The control over their content slipping away from their hand the second they share it online. Their work gets used without consent, distributed, and compromised: it gets stolen.
But why does copyright infringement happen over and over again in the digital era? How can photographers protect their work online? What right are you giving away by using social media platforms? And most importantly, how can we make the current digital photography market a safer place for every photographer?
Here’s my conversation with Leila Iruzun (Head of Operations at Kelp.Digital and researcher in the copyright and NFT field):
So, what does copyright mean in the realm of photography?
Leila: The framework including all the rights associated with a literary or artistic work is what we call copyright (or better to say copyrights). As soon as the artwork is created, the copyright is yours.
Moral rights and economic rights are the two components of copyright that help you protect and control your work. It’s like holding a shield and key in your hands.
Moral rights act as a shield to protect your work: restricting organizations and individuals from using or modifying the artwork without your permission. Economic rights are the key to commercial exploitation of your artwork (e.g., reproduction, sales, public display, or any other form of distribution).
How can photographers protect their work on the internet?
Leila: As discussed, photographers’ work is theoretically protected by copyright. Nevertheless, the laws and regulations we have are too outdated to be effective in today’s fast-paced online world.
To protect your photos on the internet, you almost need Sherlock Homes to help you solve the mystery of stolen images. Yes, you can use band-aid solutions like edit metadata, use watermarks, timestamping, do a reverse search, or register your photos in US Copyright Office (if you’re based in the US). But regrettably, your work would still get republished, duplicated, and misused without your consent.
Using unauthorized content has become a pandemic on the internet. Even if a user wants to do things correctly, finding the original artists is as tricky as finding your way out in a vast maze.
This leaves professional photographers with only one option to protect their work: not sharing pictures online, as there’s no sign of fairness, transparency, and safety in the current digital content market for content creators.
Let’s say I’m a photographer. I saw a website using my work without my permission. What can I do?
Leila: It depends on the country you’re living in. But usually, you can:
a. Ask the person/entity to stop using your pictures, tag you, and/or charge a use fee.
b. Find your picture with reverse search, redact a formal letter with the help of a lawyer, and then ask for compensation.
c. Demand compensation by going to court.
Photographers watermark their pictures and edit the metadata; Still, their work gets used without their consent. What is the root cause(s) of these frequent copyright infringements we see on the internet today?
Leila: Ignoring the creator’s rights has become a norm on the internet mainly because of two reasons: first, potential damage to photographers is invisible to the user’s eyes, and second, reusing content without permission is the easiest way to get content.
I think that the main issue behind these problems is the lack of knowledge of the problem. Many people don’t know that downloading, using, copying images without asking for permission directly hurts the photographers’ businesses.
Also, let’s not forget that social media platforms playing a major role in shaping the current unfair market for creators. By spreading the culture of “free and fast circulation of content,” they made copying and using unauthorized content as normal as having a cup of coffee in the morning.
Yet, “things change,” as Chbosky said. Policymakers and tech companies have started to come to the forefront for solving issues in the digital content market. Given coordinated effort from the community and policymakers to support tech innovation, we might not be far from changing the environment into a safe place for creators.
Many photographers and content creators accept the terms & conditions of social media platforms without reading them. What rights are we giving away with using these social networks?
Leila: “Big brother is watching you” is a famous slogan from Gorge Orwell’s 1984 that is quite relevant nowadays. The ‘evil eye’ of so-called “free” social media platforms observes us all the time, trying to gather as much information about us as possible.
It’s no secret that they collect data about our current location, the conversations we had, things we are interested in, and our behaviors. They have access to our entire photo library. Selling our data to the highest bidder is a battle-tested business model that works perfectly for the current big-tech.
When you check the box of “I Agree to Terms”, you give social media platforms the right to use your personal data and the content you share. By signing up on “free” social networks (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, etc.), you give them a “non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license” of your content.
“What does that mean?” you might ask. Well, it means that they (in a way) own your work. (Yes, you read that right.) They can duplicate, republish, and even sell your content to another company or person.
Unfortunately, using other people’s content without asking for permission, not giving credit to creators when publishing their work, and the absence of fair compensation for artists have become part of social media. This is exactly what needs to change.
You have done a lot of research about NFTs. Do you think they can make a fundamental change on content ownership and the copyright concept? Why?
Leila: Collectible unique digital artworks seem a great idea. Our society has now grown accustomed to the idea that owning an artwork doesn’t necessarily mean having a portrait canvas in your house. Gathering unique digital paintings also makes you an art collector. But here’s the catch: there’s no way to prove ownership of the original content that an NFT represents, and buyers often do not know this.
By buying an NFT, you’re just purchasing a link to the content that might not even belong to the artwork’s original author. Although NFTs show promise in 2021, the hype won’t last long unless a more transparent framework is implemented.
In my opinion, the very first step towards functioning an NFT marketplace should be implementing a framework to verify ownership over the content uploaded.
Digital creators have no control over their content when they share it on the Internet. What changes need to happen in the copyright framework to protect photographers and their work online?
Leila: Have you ever cycled in a route alongside a highway? Cars are moving like bullets out of guns while you’re struggling to reach one-fourth of their speed. This is exactly what happens with Copyright related Laws and regulations nowadays. Technologies are constantly evolving, while the copyright legal framework is unable to catch up. The latest change widely accepted at an international level is the last amendment of the Berne Convention in 1979, currently signed by 179 countries.
The good news is that the issue now rises high in the governments’ agenda (as it’s happening in Europe, Australia, and some US states). This might be just a right nudge to catalyze the creation of an up-to-date policy framework that reflects recent technological advancement.
The release of article 17 from the Copyright Directive in Europe (that makes online platforms and aggregator sites liable for copyright infringements) is a great example of how things might be changing for good. From my perspective, it represents a step forward in the right direction, but I believe it is not enough. Since we’re connected more than ever in human history and creators emerging from every corner of the planet, we need a universal framework to protect creators wherever they are.
You’re working on a project to help photographers regain control of their work. So, how are you planning to accomplish this goal?
Leila: By changing the current approach for content sharing and selling. At Kelp.Digital, we aim to solve the problem from its roots. We verify the ownership and authorship over the content when uploaded into our platform, even before it is shared publicly. By doing so, we can be certain of who the original authors are and can protect them later on by creating legally binding copyright statements. When a photographer shares or publishes their content online, Kelp copyright statements travel along with the images.
Any final message for photographers out there looking to protect their work online?
There is no doubt that changing people’s mind is a difficult task to do. That’s why taking action (whatever small or big) is the responsibility of each of us as content creators. Sharing your experiences and educating users about issues in the market is an excellent starting point. We can build a more fair and transparent place for all creators if we all unite and contribute to turning the market into something the better. — Leila Iruzun