On Copyright Infringement

Snack

Thomas,

Let me start by saying that I’m a huge fan of your work. So much so, that my wife and I chose San Francisco as a recent vacation destination largely in part because of your photographs.

My question: Are you worried about copyright infringements when using Flickr? I’m an amateur whose work doesn’t even compare to yours, and I’m even worried about people using my photos without permission.

I’m not out to make a living with photography, but I certainly don’t want anything of mine used without permission.

The person who sent me this email suggested that I write a response by way of a blog post so I thought I would.

I look at my photography like this. When I make an image it belongs to me. It belongs to me while I take the photo. It belongs to me while it sits in my camera. It belongs to me while I process it on my Mac. It belongs to me while I let it sit in an archive folder waiting to be uploaded to the internet.

Then I upload it to the internet and it’s like I’m taking a bird and opening my window and letting it go. Off she goes. Her song to be enjoyed by the entire world — certainly no longer mine.

There’s a wild band of parrots that flies around San Francisco. They squawk and make beautiful noise in the trees above the city. I think someone made a movie about them once. They are far more beautiful and interesting than the parrots who live in the cages at the pet store.

Don’t get me wrong. Were the economic incentive interesting enough to pursue with regards to copyright infringement with one of my photographs I’m sure I would. But it would have to be really, really, really interesting.

I’m trying to publish one million photographs before I die. And I’ve got big plans to do some important work with collage and collections later in my life. And that work is far more important to me than worrying about what’s going on with a bird that I already let go out the window and who now is miles and miles away from me.

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14 Comments

  1. acafourek says:

    This was a great post… I really respect that philosophy on your work and I think the goal of 1 million photographs is amazing!

    Incidentally, I’m testing out one of your SF photographs as my twitter background if you don’t mind!

  2. Thomas Hawk says:

    Incidentally, I’m testing out one of your SF photographs as my twitter background if you don’t mind!

    acafourek, don’t mind at all and glad that you like my stuff enough to use. Always love to share.

  3. ryan says:

    what would you say though if someone published a book with your “birds” and didn’t credit you, but rather themselves? Or sold wallpapers for computers with your image?Or an ad ended up on a site using your photos in it?

    I’m with you on the bird metaphor, but it seems there might be an issue if any of the above did occur.

  4. Thomas Hawk says:

    what would you say though if someone published a book with your “birds” and didn’t credit you, but rather themselves? Or sold wallpapers for computers with your image?Or an ad ended up on a site using your photos in it?

    Probably nothing. Unless the economic incentive of pursuing it was at least six figures and I could pursue it with as little work as humanly possible.

  5. William Beem says:

    I respect the choice you’ve made to share your work. I think the important lesson is that it is one of choice. Some people are fine in displaying their photographs for others to view on a personal level, but don’t want them used commercially without their consent?

    Why? It doesn’t matter. That’s their choice.

  6. JeffH says:

    Thomas,

    I too respect your decision to share your work with the world. I think it is very generous of you to do so and I very much enjoy looking at your images. I was wondering though if you had thought of the implications this generosity might have at a later date. I know you have many grand plans for your work in the future as you have spoken of them many times. There may be many other opportunities for you to both share as well as monetize your body of work at a later date that you have not even thought of yet. Having all or most of your work in the public domain could conceivably hinder or even prevent you from being able to execute some of your future projects or greatly limit your ability to monetize your work. It is certainly feasible that with the body of work you are creating, there will be opportunities for you to make your living later in life from your present creativity and efforts. Having your work in the public domain could for instance lower the value of your work if you were to try to sell fine art prints, or your images as stock photography, as you would no longer have control over who, how, when, and where your images would be used.

    Jeff

  7. Andrew says:

    I’ve recently had one of my photos taken off my website and published in print magazine without permission.

    I’m curious if your idea of letting the bird fly encourages such locations…?

    _Am

  8. Thomas Hawk says:

    Having all or most of your work in the public domain could conceivably hinder or even prevent you from being able to execute some of your future projects or greatly limit your ability to monetize your work.

    Jeff, my work is not in the public domain. Rather it’s licensed Creative Commons non-commercial. This gives me enough protection if I change my mind in the future.

    I’m curious if your idea of letting the bird fly encourages such locations…?

    I’d be fine with this personally. You might not be on the other hand.

  9. Thiago Silva says:

    I think the difference lies on what photography means to someone. For Thomas, of course, is a hobby, a form of expression. He’s not going to lose anything if someone uses one of his photos.

    Image theft becomes a serious problem only to those who make a living by them, i.e. professional photographers. They depend on the money generated by their images.

    Think about your own profession, whichever it is. I’m sure you wouldn’t mind using your skills on this profession to help a friend, for free. But you sure wouldn’t like if your boss came out one day and said “Y’know…I just don’t feel like paying you for your work today”.

  10. Mike Wood says:

    I think the world – especially SF – is a richer place because of your images. I also think receiving an email saying that someone decided to visit SF because of your images is a great payment in of itself.

    But what I really want to know is, how close to one million are you, and how are you tracking that? 🙂

  11. John Griffin says:

    1,000,000 is pretty intense. good luck. i wrote about how to protect your work and about some of the sites online that can help you with copyrighting your work.

    http://cutcaster.blogspot.com/2008/03/sites-to-help-you-copyright-your-images.html

    In addition, John Harrington wrote a great blog post about copyrighting your work and the steps to do it. i think it is a great read for you.

    http://photobusinessforum.blogspot.com/2007/09/walk-through-copyright-office.html

  12. Thomas Hawk says:

    But what I really want to know is, how close to one million are you, and how are you tracking that? 🙂

    Well, I’ve got a long way to go. I’ve got a little over 18,000 photos published to Zooomr and a little over 11,000 photos published to Flickr. I’ve probably got about 30,000 finished photos total — so a fair chuck still to be uploaded to both sites.

    But my best days in photography are still ahead of me. It’s hard for me to really get my output where it needs to be because I’ve got a day job and a family including four kids to raise right now. So at present my pace is slower than it should be and probably will be for the next 15 years or so.

    But a few things will happen after the next 15 years.

    1. I’ll be able to retire and focus 100% of my time on photography.

    2. My kids will be grown and off to college giving me more time for my art.

    3. Advances in technology will allow me to work faster and faster in terms of processing my work.

    Assuming I can live until age 90 (I’m in good health and I think medical advances in the future will push out life expectancies), I’d have to publish on average about 53 photos a day to get to one million. I’m averaging about half of that today, about 25 photos a day. But I think given the factors above I’ll probably be able to do it.

    I also plan on walking across America as one of the first things I do after retiring and shooting every day. I think that an experience like this where you immersed yourself in a year long photowalk or so could produce an amazing amount of photographs.

    But all of this is a goal and whether I make it or not remains to be determined.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Thomas has a career outside of photography, that pays him very well. He isn’t relying on his photography work to pay the bills, and I think it’s very telling that he won’t pursue photography full time until his kids leave school…he knows he can’t make enough on it to support them. I’m sure if he had to, he would be singing a very different tune. Thomas is the last person I would turn to for information about copyright issues; he’s incredibly misinformed.

  14. TranceMist says:

    Excellent post, Thomas.

    Information wants to be free, and the only thing holding it back are profits.