Photographs and Copyrights: Conversation with Rikk Flohr

Created: Tuesday, November 10, 2009, posted by Geetesh Bajaj at 2:41 am



Rikk FlohrA refugee from 18 years in corporate management and marketing, Rikk Flohr turned his attention inward to his 20-year love affair with photography. He founded his design firm Fleeting Glimpse Images in January 2006 and divides his days between various print and screen design projects, presentation consulting and, of course, photography. He lives in Apple Valley, Minnesota.

In this conversation, Rikk talks about photographs and copyrights.

Geetesh: Many people use all sorts of photos in PowerPoint – and most of them assume that any visuals they find from image searches on Google can be used in their PowerPoint presentations. How are they wrong, and what are the easiest alternative options available to them.

Rikk: I think this leads back to an erroneous notion that items found on the internet are either public domain, due to the magnanimous intentions of the creator, or free for the grabbing due to their public posting. It is a little like the mentality of the proponents of unauthorized wireless internet access. If a person leaves their wireless access point unprotected, they are, by default, inviting people to use it. Only people who hide their SSID, for example, do not wish to share their connection. The same could be said of internet images. By posting them, there is an assumption that free use is implied by virtue of their being visible in the first place.

It seems there is a generational effect at work here. The expectation of intellectual property seems to be proportional to the age of the both the artist and the consumer of the artist’s fruits. Younger people, especially those growing up with the omnipresence of computers in their lives, have a lower expectation of their work being an item of intellectual value. The perception grows as the audience gets younger that work is not longer fine art, but a commodity, or at worst, a freebie. One only has to look at the recent trends in the music and movie industries to see how this applies. Even my own children do not always understand my rabid defense of my own intellectual property. After all, isn’t information supposed to be free? Is that not the modern battle cry?

“What’s the harm?” they say of someone who is using my image on their website, with or without attribution. The harm for me is that my livelihood, and by extension theirs, is directly related to the marketability of my intellectual properties-including the photographs I have taken. If I don’t defend every instance of improper use, I can’t, in the eyes of US law defend an egregious and financially substantial theft.

Unless there is express permission by the images’ creator and/or copyright holder, there is generally no acceptable use of that image. A few exceptions exist but for what we are talking about today, it is the rule. That having been said, there are places where public-domain images exist. There are also places where non-public-domain images are available for use. Creative Commons licensing became popular as a way to grant usage of images to people needing an economical source of quality images. Photo-sharing sites like Flickr offer the ability to couple images displayed to a license that grants usage under conditions for certain considerations such as attribution, linking, and other considerations.

In addition to a wealth of Creative Commons and similarly “no-cost” image licensing solutions, there is the world of the Stock Image House. Stock image prices have fallen through the floor in the past ten years. An image that cost $200.00 USD five scant years ago can be had for as little as $15.00 USD today. That puts a lot of quality photography and illustration work within the reach of many budgets. Images have become a commodity and the lower prices have put them in a place where people should seriously consider foregoing the risk of legal action by purchasing a low-cost stock image. As long as there are images that a ‘right-click’ can capture, people will consider them free for the taking. No matter how cheap they might become from legitimate sources, the lure of the free will entice some.

Geetesh: If people started clicking their own images with digital cameras, would everything be OK – or are there still some copyright infringement issues they should be concerned about?

Rikk: The ability to easily capture images via the Digital Camera and to process them via Image Editing Software should have improved the availability of quality, pertinent images. It doesn’t always.

First, there is the problem of competency. The reason photographers and illustrators exist is that they have a skill set which allows them to create an end product superior to the layman’s. The advances in technology in digital cameras have gone a long way toward helping a novice produce a better image. The elaborate concepts of lighting, composition and attention to detail mean that a professional photograph is, at best, a hit-and-miss proposition for a novice armed with the latest extraordinary technology. Give the pro-photographer and the novice the same camera and ask them to photograph the identical subject and the difference is obvious.

Quality aside, there are a few issues of which the digital camera user must be aware. Property and people are protected somewhat by current privacy laws. In general, you are safe to shoot images just about anywhere on public property. This doesn’t mean you are free from hassle-but rather that you are within your constitutional rights. That also doesn’t mean that you won’t be accosted by police, corporate security, and angry individuals. In a world containing the threat of terrorism, you can be viewed as suspicious anywhere you photograph. You must be prepared to be detained by authorities, explain yourself, and understand your rights.

In the corporate world, things are different. Once you leave the domain of public property, you are at the mercy, more-or-less, of the persons responsible for order and security. Many companies have policies (written and unofficial) regarding people photographing buildings, technologies or employees. On the recent PowerPoint Live 2009 Digital Photography Field Trip, I, as the tour organizer spent a significant portion of the trip running interference. Four times during the two hour expedition, I was forced to explain what we were doing to hotel security, bank security guards, Atlanta’s MARTA police and people who asked what we were up to. Content which might appear in a digital photograph may be sensitive or even protected.

As a photographer, I carry model and property releases for items which I may decide to photograph with the intent of using at a later date. Without those releases, I open myself to liability should I click a digital image of a person or a property. If recognizable people appear in your image, you will need a release to use the photo. If a trademarked or copyrighted item appears in your photograph, you need a release to use the photo. Think about a Coke™ bottle. The logo is trademarked. The shape of the bottle is even protected. You can get out of paying usage fees to a photographer or a stock house by taking your own image but you still don’t have the rights to use that image containing the trademarked bottle and logo without Coke’s permission-in most cases.

The same holds true for works of art. Consider the Eiffel Tower. How many millions of photographs exist of the iconic Paris landmark? Did you know that, according to the trade publications I read, that you can use any image taken of the tower for any purpose-but only in daylight! After dark, the company which lights the tower holds the rights to usage of any image captured. In the daylight anyone can see the tower. At night, only the company lighting the tower, can provide you with an image by virtue of their ‘creative’ act of lighting. It doesn’t mean you can’t take an image of the tower at night. Use that image in a work for profit item and you may be subject to legal action however.

You can photograph people and places and in certain instances use the resulting images. There are many exceptions to image use including, educational use, public-good, editorial and many others. The answer to just about every copyright question is ‘It depends.’ Anyone sitting in Alvin Trusty’s PowerPoint Live Copyright session would have heard those two words repeatedly. It Depends!

Bottom line: you are going to have a generally less-expensive path to an image by taking it yourself. Realize that you must have some sort of clearing process for what appears in your image. It may require a model release or a property release to completely clear your image for use. You may be in a situation where usage is considered fair without a release but make certain you are before using that image.

Categories: copyrights, interviews, photography, powerpoint

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