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Frozen In Fear By Copyright

I listen to a lot of photography podcasts. When I say "a lot," I mean "a lot." Looking at my iTunes library, I have 15 different shows queued up right now. There is one topic that seems to have been discussed on every single one of them in recent months: Copyright.

It's on the forefront of the discussion on this new digital age of photography. Little did photographers have to worry about image theft ten years ago. To steal an image meant to copy it from some printed material and that meant a gross reduction in quality. The decision was simple: in a commercial application, image theft was not even an option. In today's market, though, it's not uncommon to see images lifted directly from Flickr or blogs and dropped into commercial or private publications.

At the same time we have seen the increased ease with which images can be misused, we have also seen a universal increase in the quality of photos taken by amateur or semi-professional photographers. The instantaneous feedback that digital technology has given us has greatly enhanced the images coming out of entry-level cameras and their photographers. Just look at Nikon's new D3000. The menu system replaces the technical jargon of photography (f-stops, apertures, shutter speeds) with more friendly advice (Soften backgrounds, Freeze motion (people), Freeze motion (vehicles)). It's possible to take better and better photos with minimal effort.

All of this adds up to major problems for copyright holders. If amateurs are taking such great photos, posting them on Flickr, and they are being used without permission, that's wrong, correct? I say, absolutely. Sure every photographer deserves to be compensated in a mutually agreed fashion for his or her image. Where I see trouble brewing is when the fear of theft hampers photographers.

In organizing the Heart Of Texas Photographic Society (HOTps), I have asked all of the members to create a Flickr account and post images there for review. The core members that have been there since the beginning a year ago don't seem to have a problem with this. Recently, we have added a few new members to our fold and the issue of image protection invariably comes up. At least a couple there and a few that I have encountered elsewhere have expressed their reluctance to post images on a public forum for fear of theft. 

My dad has been an enthusiast photographer for as long as I can remember.  He gave me my first camera after he retired it fomr his equipment bag, an all manual Chinon CE-5.  Since going digital and posessing the ability to easily share his images with the world and soliciting advice from other photographers, he has resisted, citing fear of theft.  Even today, after he has dipped his toe into the online world, he is more concerned about locking down his photos than he is in participating in the community.

Here's my question: If you aren't selling your images anyway, what possible damage could unauthorized use of one of your photos cause?

As a participant in the public photo community (while retaining all copyrights, mind you), I firmly believe that the benefit to sharing your work with other photographers far exceeds the potential risk of copyright violation. From a sheer pragmatic perspective, there are millions or even billions of photos out there that have been taken by professionals and advanced amateurs that are probably significantly better than the photos you are posting and at more risk for theft.

If, perchance, one of you greatest images is lifted, what have you lost?  Nothing.  You probably were not shooting this under assignment from an advertising agency, you probably were not selling the photo either.  The use of that image has created no financial burnden on you.  Should you pursue the person who used your image without your permission?  Of course, theft is wrong and we all know that.  I firmly believe in retaining all copyrights and will personally persue anyone who uses my images without authorization.

As far as I can tell, I have never suffered from this and the amount of information and experience I have gained from sharing my photos online, however, has far outweighed this potential threat.  I currently maintain a profile on Treklens, Flickr, as well as this blog, and a private blog for images to share with close family and friends.  My photography has progressed by leaps since I started sharing photos online and participating in the discussion.  I feel I get more out of critiquing photos than I do from the critiques on my own images, but the overall advantage has been obvious to me.  I never would have even considered sellimg my images were it not for responses I have gotten from other photographers online.

Please start sharing your work.  I know I'd love to see it and can promise an honest review and help you move your photography forward.

All I'm saying is that fear of theft should not hinder your participation in the social side of this new digital photography age.

Scott Everett