A few years ago, when Tumblr was going through some of its earlier growing pains (as opposed to just its regular pains), I was a very dedicated Flickr user, relying on it both as a way to share my photography and as a home to a beloved community. There was a period when Tumblr users were taking photographs from everyone they could, removing all attribution and sometimes even the embedded data, and then posting the photos in an endless stream on their Tumblrs. It was essentially a mass aggregation of visual content, a constant scraping of Flickr, blogs, and portfolios to take images and post them without permission or attribution. A lot of photographers became incensed, and an endless series of arguments with the Tumblr users and Tumblr itself ensued.
The core of these arguments were nothing new—copyright laws have existed practically since the dawn printing press, and I imagine arguments about copyright have therefore existed almost as long. Photography is a trickier subject when it comes to copyright, in that we’ve thought a lot about copyrighting words but much less about images, not only because photography is a much more recent invention but also because of perceptions around photography as an art form and as a mode of representation. The digital age has ushered even bigger complications, with the benefit of an increased audience and the downside of a loss of control over the work you produce and release. So there were a lot of concerns, opinions, and feelings expressed about ownership, and rights, and copyright vs. creative commons vs. fair use. There was a lot of “no one likes it when writers get plagiarized, so why don’t people raise the same stink with photography?” And there was a lot of anger from people who felt they had their Flickr accounts raided, only to see their images appear on countless Tumblr pages with thousands of reblogs and not a single bit of attribution or a link back. Frequently even the embedded data was gone, meaning the only way to find the original owner was to image search—easier now, but still not ideal.
Whatever we ultimately conclude about copyright and ownership, it’s this last part I want to think about. The link back. I thought a lot about the thread that connects the creator of the image to the image, and the story that may or may not go with it. I’m a firm believer that once you’ve created something and released it into the world, you no longer have a claim to it. You cannot control how people react to it, what they see in it, how they reflect on it or project onto it. You’ve let it go and you have to let it go. But that thread that ties you, the creator, to whatever it is you’ve created is still valuable. It may be valuable for someone who wants to know who created the image to find more like it, and to buy them (money!). It may be valuable because someone resonates deeply with the story being told in the image and needs to learn more—if the thread is snipped, that’s a missed opportunity. And in the case of Hurricane Sandy and the spread of false photographs and information, the thread is a way to learn the provenance and story of the image before damage is done. Sure, it’s easier than ever to research images and figure out where they’ve come from, but how far and fast did those images spread before anyone did so? How many people saw them and asked friends, neighbors, strangers if they’d seen the crazy photos of the storm cloud over the Statue of Liberty or the seal that escaped the zoo? The internet works to correct itself and to find the truth in these images, but do we think about how quickly ideas, perceptions, even history can be affected by the spread of false photographs and misinformation? The faster information and disinformation spread and the more imagery is available, the more valuable these threads may be in connecting us to the best version of the truth available.