Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Picture Is Worth...A Thousand Buck(or more)

First of all, please check out a post from a friend of mine, Kanani Fong.  Her tips for writers post is excellent.  Now, on to the main post...

I'm sure several folks by now have noticed a mild change to my blog.  I used to have pictures all over the place, usually captioned by something witty.  It added some color to the site and made it so that I didn't rely solely on text.  However, I decided to change that on Saturday when I ran into this post over at The Passive Voice.  That led me to follow a series of posts, starting with this one, regarding the posting of pictures and the doctrine of Fair Use.

A lot of bloggers, myself included, go to Google Images to find pictures related to their post, and then they post these to their blogs. seems to encourage this with the picture application on the toolbar.  My general thought was, Everyone seems to be doing it, so I guess it's okay.  WRONGO!

Fair Use is a moderately complicated legal doctrine covered by the Copyright Act of 1976 17 USC 107.  It discusses when you can and can't use copyrighted work in your own stuff.  At what point do you owe the original author credit, and at what point do you owe them monetary compensation?

Usually, if you excerpt something for further analysis or criticism, you're covered under the Fair Use Doctrine because what you're doing involves enrichment of the general public on the specific issue at hand.  This is usually the way news sources do it, and it's covered.  However, using an image without permission just to spruce up your site isn't covered and has been deemed by courts to be piracy, not Fair Use.

Not many bloggers are aware of this and use pictures at random to make a point or inject humor into their commentary.  Turns out this is a big no no.  The people who take these pictures own the copyright the same way an author owns the copyright to a novel he or she has written.  These people make their living from this stuff and people using their pictures without permission or compensation are taking food out of the mouths of their families.  The overwhelming majority of us who use(d) them aren't doing so with malice and generally don't even know they're violating the law - they just see a fun way to be entertaining.

We've justified this by saying we weren't making any money off of the images.  It turns out that this doesn't matter in the least.  It also doesn't matter if you did so in ignorance, credited the photographer, issued a disclaimer that the work wasn't yours, or took down the offending picture after being notified about it - you're still in violation of the law, and it can end badly.

A few folks have recently been sued over this and been forced to pay money they really couldn't part with in order to settle the issue.  This situation is analogous to the Recording Industry Association of America suing those who were swapping music over the Internet a few years ago.  The RIAA said they were losing millions on these file sharing sites and went to extreme lengths to stop the problem.  I even knew one of the people the RIAA had sued for $967,000, although his family agreed to settle for $6,000.

Now I'm personally thrilled whenever someone reproduces my work and shares it with others.  I kind of get a thrill off of it and enjoy a bit of an ego boost, but I'm also admittedly new to this.  Lots of photographers, however, don't share my affinity for someone using their stuff, especially if they didn't give permission to do so.  Not many are as heavy handed as the one Roni Loren ran into - most will issue a DMCA Takedown Notice and let that be the end of it once the offending blogger takes down the work(usually following a profuse apology), but the photographer is still well within his or her right to demand compensation, through the courts if necessary.

So, what does this all mean for this site?  It means I've taken down all pictures and cartoons in order to avoid any possible issues.  I intend to better research the issue to see if there's a way to do this without violating copyright law.  There are a few sites out there that offer free images, like Creative Commons, but even these offer a few obstacles(like you can't use the images to make any money whatsoever...and if you use your blog to promote you writing career, that can be deemed to be "making money").  One can also join certain sites that offer use of their pictures for a fee, but I'm kind of cheap and not really looking to pay for these things, which is one of the big reasons the use of photos from someone else on here can be problematic.  The best solution seems to be exclusively using photos I've taken.  Now I've just got to find ones that match the material or go out and take some new ones.

In summary, I know that posts that rely largely on text can appear vanilla, but better to try and be brilliant in prose than to worry about paying several thousand dollars because you innocently used a drawing of Snoopy that you shouldn't have.  As much as I love pontificating to the masses, I'm not going to risk my family's financial future to do so.
(The only people I'll risk my future for, because they ARE my future)


  1. Jeez.....your probably right Russ. I use mainly photos from military sites or Service members. But I do take here and there for my writing posts. It is probably a good idea to stop that. Thanks for the post Russ!

    1. Yeah, kind of caught me by the short and curlies when I read Roni's post. Better safe than sorry!