What's Wrong With This Picture?

from the change-of-focus dept

As you may have heard, there’s been an election in Rome recently. These kind of events tend to bring out the crowds, and NBC had the clever idea of finding a couple of pictures showing roughly the same view, but eight years apart. They look very similar, except for one rather striking detail: in the first, from 2005, there are a few mobile phones visible; in the second, taken recently, tiny screens are visible everywhere in the crowd — it seems as if practically everyone is using their phone to take a picture.

An article in the Huffington Post rightly points out that the two pictures aren’t strictly comparable: the older photo was taken shortly after the death of Pope John Paul II, when his body had been carried across St Peter’s Square. That contrasts with the rather more joyous event of the new Pope Francis speaking to the public for the first time after his election.

But the same article also notes that other pictures taken at the time of the election of Pope Benedict XVI a few weeks after the death of his predecessor show a similar scarcity of people holding up their phones to take pictures. And a moment’s reflection will confirm that nowadays there is an almost reflexive urge to use our smartphones with their high-quality cameras to capture anything of note that is going on around us, in a way that wasn’t the case when cameras were separate things (to say nothing of when some kind of physical film had to be loaded, emptied and developed in order to use them.) The huge numbers of pictures on Facebook alone — 220 billion as of October last year, rising by 300 million each day — also bears witness to that.

This raises many interesting questions, for example to do with how people nowadays relate to their memories, and what the existence of so many photos means for privacy and surveillance. But here I want to consider one other aspect.

Judging by the Facebook numbers quoted above, there are now probably trillions of digital photos in existence, with billions more being created each day. It goes without saying that this wealth of fixed (and moving) images is unprecedented in the history of mankind. That also means the things that could be done with those images are also unprecedented, because new scales bring new possibilities. For example, by combining millions of pictures taken by thousands of people of the same location at different moments it would be possible to create interesting four-dimensional digital artifacts — navigable 3D worlds that change with time.

Except, of course, that you can’t, thanks to the way that copyright is automatically attached to creations once they are fixed — for example, by storing a digital photo. To use all those images for this kind of reconstruction would require every single one of them to be licensed under a suitable Creative Commons license that allowed them to be re-used. Even the simplest of them — CC-BY — would be hard to comply with, since attribution would need to be available for every photo that made even the smallest contribution to the different composite images for each moment of time. Ideally, billions of images would be placed in the public domain, allowing any kind of use, but that’s surprisingly hard to achieve, because of the prevailing presumption that copyright should apply to everything, for as long as possible. Certainly, it’s not something we can reasonably hope huge numbers of people might do routinely.

This inability to tap into the incredible collective wealth of a trillion digital images stored around the world imbues that recent picture of thousands of people holding up their mobile phones in Rome with a certain melancholy. The blurred screens receding into the distance become a symbol of all that we cannot see thanks to copyright laws whose original focus on protecting small numbers of hard-to-produce works from copying is no longer appropriate.

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Comments on “What's Wrong With This Picture?”

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DannyB (profile) says:

Eventually everyone will recognize the benefit

Like paying taxes, at some point everyone recognizes the larger benefit to everyone else and realizes it is a good idea to collectively build roads, with lights at night, and bridges and signs.

At some point everyone might willingly contribute their pictures to be stitched together and not care about the tiny or non existent value of copyright in their individual photos. The larger benefit of being able to stitch all those pictures together is huge and benefits everyone.

out_of_the_blue says:

Congratulations! FURTHEST stretch yet against copyright!

My goodness. We’ll be denied wasting time in yet another way. Such a shame. I really wanted to see thousands of idiots all looking at their phones instead of at reality.

BUT TO BLAME COPYRIGHT for gadgetry that doesn’t yet exist! Whew! That’s ingenuity! You evidence NO mania at all.

out_of_the_blue says:

Re: Re: Congratulations! FURTHEST stretch yet against copyright!

@ “Rikuo (profile), Mar 26th, 2013 @ 2:40pm

Re: Congratulations! FURTHEST stretch yet against copyright!
Blinks…doesn’t exist yet? Then…what the fuck am I holding in my hand and talking into?”

I don’t use vulgarisms, so won’t say! But if you THINK on what you wrote there, you’ll see it’s a straight line that lesser minds couldn’t resist.

Anyway. Sheesh.

Here’s the clean answer, from “would be possible to create interesting four-dimensional digital artifacts — navigable 3D worlds that change with time.” — The gadget that I allude to is the one Minion Moody suggests that will take all those images and amalgamate them, silly.

Beech says:

Re: Re: Re: Congratulations! FURTHEST stretch yet against copyright!

Glynn never said anything about the pictures being combined in real time on a hand held gadget, it seemed mainly like he was talking about after the event a big-ass computer finding all the pictures taken in roughly the same time/place and turning them into a 4D navigable picture…like google street view, but crowdsourced.

I believe that technologically such a task is feasible now (especially with all the metadata some camera phones keep cough iphones cough). The problem is getting access to the dataset (thousands of pictures taken by thousands of people) and getting the permission to use it (thousands of licenses from thousands of people).

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Congratulations! FURTHEST stretch yet against copyright!

Too complex for his brain. I think it could be amazing. Recently my company threw away all sorts of photographic assets instead of digitalizing it. We lost part of our memory. I can only imagine what could have been done a few years ahead when this sort of technology becomes common.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Congratulations! FURTHEST stretch yet against copyright!

Wait a minute…

a big-ass computer finding all the pictures taken in roughly the same time/place and turning them into a 4D navigable picture…like google street view, but crowdsourced.

Too complex for his brain.

…It all makes sense now. out_of_the_blue is Yuzu Tanikawa.

Beech says:

Re: Re: Congratulations! FURTHEST stretch yet against copyright!

Allow me to explain, since i have apparently had an aneurism and suffered JUST enough brain damage to understand what OotB is talking about but not enough to render me incoherent.

You see, the normal person with any level of reading comprehension would see that Glynn started talking about how different we as a people are now versus just a few years ago, due to technology, then segued to lamenting the fact that, due to copyright, we are losing out on the possibilities of some ginormous crowd-funded projects using datasets so large that a few years ago they would have been incomprehensible.

Mr. Blue must have seen the picture, skimmed over a bunch of funny looking squiggles until the word “copyright” came into focus, then the gremlin living in his brain told him that the only explanation for the word “copyright” to be in proximity to the picture is that Glynn was blaming the dearth of gadgets in the “before” picture on copyright. It’s basically your garden variety straw man argument, but taken all the damn way to crazy-town.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Congratulations! FURTHEST stretch yet against copyright!

“Or brain damage, that could be it.”

Adherence to copyright maximalism does tend to cause brain damage over time.

The ability to do math is the first thing to go, followed shortly thereafter by a breakdown in the brain’s ability to understand and process logic, as well as a decline in reading comprehension. From there one tends to see a spiral into irrationality and a degradation of speech that ultimately ends with the patient foaming rabidly at the mouth and displays of indescriminate aggression against anything that enters his or her field of vision.

Violated (profile) says:

The Internet was first

I don’t think NBC could have gone far to obtain these photos when I saw the originals on Reddit/Imgur almost a couple of weeks ago.

Social media does move quickly with the news but naturally you can’t always trust the source when PhotoShop use is rampant.

Yes this is just the progress of technology and it is hardly like we are all going to throw our phones away. Just imagine what we will be using as the next Pope is elected. Google glass?

bob (profile) says:

picture matching

so, they have other pictures from the past, but they didn’t show our point as much as this irrelevant picture we ended up using?
basically what that means is that the other picture had people holding up phones, cameras and other things.
so they’re doctoring the story by purposefully using pictures that don’t depict the truth of the matter.
otherwise, why not use the older photo from the time of the last popes speech, selection, etc?

Rapnel (profile) says:

Re: picture matching

No, dumbass, he was mentally harvesting ideas, that, alas, can not, today, come to fruition by illustrating the archaic impact of yesterday’s copyright on today’s possibilities.

Why do some of you feel the need to be so blatantly and willfully ignorant?

person: “We can BUILD IT.”
lawyer: “Umm, no, sorry, no you can’t. You need permission.”
person: “From whom?”
lawyer: “Everyone, as well as the permission of those that represent everyone.”
person: “God?”
lawyer: “No, I’m afraid that God has been forced to sign a non-compete agreement, in absentia mind you but signed nonetheless.”
person: “How do I innovate.”
lawyer: “Do you see that large box over there? If you get into that and shut the lid then I’m sure something will come to you.”

The box will disintegrate in the rain. Bring the rain.

timmaguire42 (profile) says:

I think you’d be surprised at how many people would make their photos freely available for a project that seemed interesting.

You touch on another issue that I wonder about–the effect of all this documentation on memory. I have very few memories of my childhood. I also have very few pictures (and those mostly contextless class photos), and no film whatsoever. My daughter, on the other hand, has a multitude of photos and vides documenting most of the events of her life.

How will all that evidence effect her memories of her childhood?

Beech says:

Re: Re:

The problem isn’t that people wouldn’t be willing to contribute. The problem is the effort it would take to find all the pictures now, then find all the owners of those pictures, then secure permission from all those owners. That is the problem with everything automatically being under copyright. I would be willing to bet that 99% of the people there have no interest in commercializing their pictures, 99% would be fine if their picture was used in such a project. But due to the way laws are written 100% of those pictures are under copyright and need special permission to be used. If copyright was opt-in, however, such a project would be much easier to put together

Reader says:

Permissive licensing of photos, contractual restrictions and official photography regulations

Aside from copyright, photographers may sometimes have issues releasing their photos under a permissive license (or dedicating a photo to the public domain) due to contractual restrictions for attendees at public events that allow only personal or non-commercial photography or official photography regulations that may be designed around disruptive photography (i.e. certain public parks restricting “commercial photography”) but which are unintentionally far-reaching.

Josef Anvil (profile) says:

Prohibition and Piracy

IP laws exist. Those laws are not going away any time soon. Human nature exists and predates IP law. When any laws directly conflict with human nature, the law rarely wins.

When looking at the Prohibition of alcohol in the US vs content piracy there is one very striking difference. In both instances, the public showed a complete disregard for the law on a massive scale. The difference is that Congress acted rather swiftly to remedy the issue by repealing a very bad law.

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