The Disposability of Images and How to Fix It

Upload Photo FacebookSocial networking has taught us a great deal about how people approach other’s content.

If you scroll through your Facebook feed right now, you’ll likely find a variety of content from status updates to checkins and probably more than a few app postings as well. However, you’ll also likely find a lot of images and, though many, if not most, will be taken by the person posting them, many will not.

Though it’s not possible to know what percentage of images are infringing or are likely infringing, what is clear is that they are everywhere on social networking sites. In fact, many argue that Pinterest is a social network built solely around infringing the other people’s images.

But what’s so strange about this behavior is that many of the people who routinely use other’s images are, in their minds at least, copyright hawks. I have many friends who are local musicians that would never dream of downloading a song illegally or pirating a movie, but routinely punctuate their Facebook feed with images taken from other people, including many stock photographers who are trying to make a living selling their work.

There seems to be something of a double standard when it comes to images, especially photographs. Somehow, images are just more disposable and less valuable than other forms of content, even though it can take just as much expertise, time and creativity to create a beautiful photo as it does a poem, song or video.

Why do people feel so comfortable copying images they find online? The answer, it seems, predates the Internet itself.

Why Are Images Seemingly So Easy to Infringe?

So why do images find themselves being so readily traded online, even by people who wouldn’t think of copying other content illegally? It’s a tough question to answer.

On one hand, image infringement has not been in the news nearly as much as movie and music infringement. Even though the stock photo industry has been by far the busiest in defending their work, they haven’t generated many headlines for it, opting for a less-litigious though still threatening posture.

Furthermore, those threatening letters have not targeted individuals as much as businesses. Meaning that, if you share an image via Facebook or even your personal site, you aren’t likely to hear anything about it.

However, there may be an even more simple simple explanation as to why, namely that your average consumer has never once purchased an image.

Most people see thousands of images every day. From images that go with newspapers, magazines, blogs, billboards and everywhere else we can imagine. However, they didn’t pay for a single one and, in fact, many of the images were likely unwelcome.

While it’s true that someone paid for those works, namely the person who made the newspaper, billboard, etc., but the person looking at the image doesn’t see that nor are they aware of them. To most people, images are free, ubiquitous and even obnoxious. A consumer has likely purchased at least some DVDs, books, CDs, etc. but probably has never once bought a photo, save perhaps as a postcard or a piece of art to hang on their wall.

In short, to many, an image has no value outside of being a physical object and even that value seems to be waning in many ways. This, in turn, creates a significant challenge for artists, especially professional ones, as they try to ply their trade online.

The Two Potential Solutions

The basic problem with images online is that, to end users, images don’t have any real monetary value. They can’t put a price tag on a photo because they don’t know what it cost, where they would buy it, who they would buy it from or even why they would buy it. Photos are almost like water, flowing into people’s lives, often without any real want or need, and then leaving.

This is an attitude and misunderstanding that easily predates the Web. It’s just that now, with the Web and social media, everyone is a publisher and a distributor of content. It’s as if everyone has been handed their own printing press with an unlimited supply of ink and paper.

While everyone waxes poetic about the power of photographs and how an image is worth a thousand words, the truth is that from a more practical financial sense, most people aren’t used to paying for photos like they are movies, music and books and convincing them to do so now that they are mini-publishers is nearly impossible.

This leaves photographers two solutions:

  1. Fight to change these mentalities and convert more people into customers.
  2. Try to work within the paradigm and build revenue from other sources.

Of course, the two methods are not mutually exclusive and many are doing both, but these are the only two approaches that have any real promise moving forward. After all, ignoring the problem isn’t going help anything.

But what should you do? The answer depends on the aproach(es) you want to take.

Getting Down to Details

Whether you want to fight these issues, try to work within them or some combination of the two, there are a few steps that you should take right away to help with these problems.

  1. Watermark Your Images: This one is simple, never post anything without a reasonable watermark. It doesn’t have to be obstructive, but enough to both discourage commercial use and, more importantly, ensure that attribution is carried with it.
  2. Track Your Images: It’s easier than ever to track your images and understand where and how they are being used. Useful for either measuring how viral they are or for enforcing your rights.
  3. Offer a Clear Path to Licensing: Whether you’re using Creative Commons, selling your images as stock photos or something else in between, if offer a clear path to legitimate use of your images more people will follow through.

Beyond that, what you do is up to you. If you want to take advantage of image sharing (one of the benefits of this rampant sharing is that images can easily go viral) encourage its use. Include share buttons for various services and throw your doors open wide to Pinterest and similar services.

If you want to discourage sharing and focus on a more traditional model, post only smaller images in public place, limit your use of sharing tools, focus on encouraging regular links to your site (possibly providing HTML) and prepare an enforcement strategy for when you find illegal copies of your work.

Of course, as I said above, the two paths are not mutually exclusive. Many photographers encourage sharing and welcome widespread use of their work but respond swiftly to any commercial or potentially-commercial use. The goal, however, is to find a balance for you but I suspect, for most photographers and artists, individuals and end users are not the target for sales, making them a dubious prospect to go after.

In short, since end users haven’t been paying for images in the past 100 years, they aren’t likely to start now, even if their role has changed.

Bottom Line

In the end, the solution is all about balance. There isn’t going to be any silver bullet resolution to this complicated issue. Business models will have to change, enforcement will have to take place and viewpoints (on all sides) are going to have to shift.

To maximize what you have today, you need to look at your work, your audience and your market. From there, you can see just how to best capitalize or deal with these issues.

There are no simple answers, but with a balanced approach that fits your situation, you do a great deal of good both for yourself and others.

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