Lessons on plagiarism

Torontoist (via Regret the Error) talks about a Toronto blogger and Flickrite who had photos of his used on Citytv’s CP24 news network without permission, credit or compensation, and has finally received vindication in the form of a Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruling in his favour.

This kind of thing, sadly, is nothing new. Last year I mentioned TVA using a photo from Taxi de nuit’s Pierre-Léon, similarly stolen from his Flickr page. There was also blogger Julie Bélanger, who had a photo of hers taken from her Flickr page and used in Quebecor’s 24 Heures.

I think there are lessons to be learned from this, not just for traditional media, but for bloggers as well, about using other people’s content without permission.

In many blogs I subscribe to, I often see photos used to illustrate posts. That’s usually a good idea, because photos attract attention, and they can show things clearly that words sometimes can’t.

But in most of those cases, the photos weren’t taken by the blogger. They might have been taken by a wire service like Canadian Press or Getty Images, or by a local newspaper, or by some random person on Flickr.

And very often (almost universally for professional photos), they are used without permission.

The problem comes, I think, because of a misunderstanding of “fair use” or “fair dealing” provisions of copyright law (assuming the infringer cares about copyright to begin with — some clearly don’t). These are exceptions to copyright law for things like academic study, criticism and parody.

For example, if I wanted to criticize a Hollywood movie, I would be within my rights to use an excerpt from that movie to do so. Or if I was writing a news article about a work of art, I could print a photo of it beside the article.

But many people misunderstand the exception, and assume that they can just slap on any wire service or Flickr photo to illustrate any story, even if the story is not about the photo.

The excuses used for this, by professional and amateur media moguls alike, include:

  • It was free (gratis) online, therefore it’s free (as in freedom) to use
  • My site is non-commercial
  • It’s used to illustrate a news article
  • There was no alternative
  • I used a small-resolution version

Neither of these, by themselves, or together, justify copyright infringement. They may be mitigating factors, but they are not criteria for fair use.

The last excuse, used more by bloggers who think they’re doing the right thing, is that the photo is credited, and therefore there’s no infringement.

This unwritten policy seems to have come out of increasingly popular copyleft licenses used by people to encourage the spreading of their work. There’s an assumption that everyone on the Internet uses such licenses, which allow the free use of material provided it is credited. Not all blogs, nor all photos on Flickr, use copyleft licenses. And even those who do have different clauses which allow for different things.

In the absence of a copyleft (or other) license, all rights are reserved, and that means you need to get permission before using other people’s work.

In most cases, that permission is given freely. But you still need to ask.

4 thoughts on “Lessons on plagiarism

  1. BruB

    Really funny, I’m the one who brought up the Pierre-Leon photo to his attention, but so many blog took it after he would have found it out sooner or later :).

    Being a photographer myself, getting a picture stolen from my flickr page is a constant risk. But if you decide to share it, there is always this chance and if you really don’t want, don’t share.

    Good read, thanks!

  2. tornwordo

    Which is why I always use photos I’ve taken. Now I’m wondering how many are being “stolen”. Not that I care really. It seems the only people who should care are professional photographers, and in that case, they can just watermark their prized photos.

  3. Jonathan Bailey

    First off, I’m glad that this case had a happy ending, that is great news. I know it is scary for the little guy to go agaist the media companies but, usually, they win if they are truly in the right.

    Indeed, the reasons you give for people infringing works are all ones I’ve heard. But one that you forgot is that the work didn’t have a copyright notice so it doesn’t have any protection. That is, of course, a misunderstanding of copyright law, but still a common excuse.

    Thank you for this great article and for drawing more attention to this issue.

  4. Shawn

    I know that on Wikipedia, Flickr images are being deleted all the time, if there is no valid free use permission.


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