Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Argument Against

I've been rambling on for a while about photographs and copyright. Now I'm going to try to pull it all together into a relatively short and straightforward argument against universal copyright for photographs.

Some caveats and clarifications. I think there are photographs deserving of copyright, and I intend to leave the details of which those are unspoken. It doesn't matter. Also, I recognize that photographers are going to disagree by default with this position. They (and I am one as well) are used to having copyright. It has been true since birth that you own the result of your button press. My argument is, in truth, trying to take away from you something which you have always owned. Sorry about that.


Economic Rationale: This is the easiest argument in-favor to dispose of. Nobody's being paid a dime to make most pictures, and yet they keep getting made. With rare exceptions, the copyright on a picture is irrelevant to any actual compensation. If anything, society would benefit more if we compensated photographers to stop taking pictures.

Moral Rationale: As noted, this one lives and dies on the how much creative input went into the image. Plumbers put intellectual effort into their work, so it's not intellect that does it. It's creativity. By far the vast majority of pictures made are made with virtually no creative input whatsoever, see facebook, see flickr, see instagram. Virtually every photograph made is heavily, heavily derivative of other work. Other vast swathes of work are simply by the numbers problem solving - put a light here, a light there, higher to get the catchlights right. Yet another category of work is collaboration between models, stylists, set dressers and photographers, only one of whom is granted complete ownership of the result for life and beyond.

In short, there are only rare cases in which the photographer has been the clear and definite leading source of creative input to the photograph. In all other cases, the moral rationale for photographs as the intellectual property of the photographer is suspect.

These are the arguments in favor of photographs as intellectual property, addressed to my satisfaction. What about arguments directly opposing?

Appropriation: As I have noted in the past photography is an appropriative act. When I photograph something or someone my subject arguably loses nothing. However, I gain something, something to which it is by no means clear I have any rights.

The Golden Gate Bridge is not mine. The cars on it are not mine. The boats under it are not mine. The sun behind it is also not mine. And yet, when I point my camera at it and press a button, I acquire an image, a notional construct, containing the tracings of all those things, an image that is completely mine, under the law. This is absurd.

If I am in a hall rented by the bride, am handsomely paid by the bride to take a photograph of the bride wearing a dress selected and paid for by the bride, the photograph I take is by some mysterious and incomprehensible alchemy, mine. Brides, for the most part, find this absurd. This is not because brides are idiots, it's because this is absurd.

Social Damage: Has our society been well served by the mass of photographs of various icons? I certainly don't think so. Our ability to appreciate certain objects has been damaged by the mass of imagery. Our ability to look at Half Dome and see its natural beauty is, to a degree, damaged by the endless parade of photographs of it.

Our ability to look at and appreciate Half Dome is further eroded by our personal desire to take a photograph of it. Not everyone wants to take a picture of the thing, but a hell of a lot of people do. Those people's perception of the thing is altered by the postcard they saw a few minutes ago, and by their desire to replicate that postcard with their iPhone.

We would be better served as a society by a system which discouraged this mass of photographs. This is not to suggest that copyright is the cause of a billion terrible snapshots of Half Dome, copyright is merely a part of a system which encourages us to take pictures.

In Conclusion

Not every photograph is undeserving of copyright. The degree to which a picture is varies a great deal, and definitely occupies a spectrum. Still, the idea that every photograph is simply born with a built in and fairly absolute copyright held by the presser of the button is ridiculous. It's might be the only practical legal solution, but that does not make it not absurd.


  1. You certainly seem fixed on your position here, weird logic (something someone creates and possesses has no ownership rights) and indefensible ethics (so anyone should be able to copy another's effort and use it with impunity).

    PS. a bride signs a contract which defines the use of the images, she can assert any term she wishes or find a photographer who will give her what she wants. That is her choice. Even if there was no copyright law, the contract would govern how she could or could not use the images. That is basic contract law.

  2. Ok, that's enough of that. I don't mind alternate opinions, but if you're just going to insult me you're out of here.