Sometimes Photos Are Just Facts, And Copying Is To Be Expected

from the knowledge-spreads dept

Scientific American photography blogger Alex Wild recently wrote about his experience in discovering that one of his photos had been copied by a (now deceased) artist for an illustration that ran in the L.A. Times. In many ways Wild's attitude is commendable: he recognizes that copying is a complex issue, and ends the post with an open question about what's appropriate and how he should react. But at the same time, I think he misses the mark with some of his statements, and focuses on the wrong aspects of copying in making his case for why he feels ripped off.

Wild is an entomologist by trade, who built a photography business alongside his scientific work. The photo that was copied is a fairly straightforward snapshot of an ant:

There can be little doubt that the illustration is directly copied from the photo. But the question is, what creative contribution did Wild make himself? As he says in the blog post:

The sketch could never have existed without my original image nor without my taxonomic expertise in identifying the species. I received no acknowledgement for my part. Somebody else got paid for my efforts, and I got… an excuse to write a blog post, I suppose. What I mean is, I feel like a chump.

But Wild's work could never have existed without the ant itself, and it seems like the primary purpose of the image is simply to document the appearance of the species. Facts aren't covered by copyright, and that's not just a legal nuance, it's a reflection of common sense: just because we observe and collect factual information about the world—even if we are the first to do so—doesn't mean we deserve any control over that information. We may expect to receive a certain amount of recognition, and we may certainly seek to capitalize on the information ourselves (since we are probably in an advantageous position to do so), but we don't get perpetual credit or payment. Knowledge cannot be owned.

What was copied from the photograph was simply the knowledge of what the ant looks like, and indeed the photo contained very little beyond that to begin with. It's a catalogue-style shot in terms of framing and composition, and the few arguably creative choices—the surface the ant is standing on, the depth of field—were not copied at all in the illustration. The only thing that was copied is the photograph's subject, which Wild didn't create. Perhaps it would have been nice if the illustration included a credit to the original photo, but the simple fact is that knowledge about our world is always going to spread beyond such concerns, and that's no reason to feel hard done by.

So I don't think this is really a question of copying art so much as repeating facts—but even from an artistic perspective, Wild goes on to show that he's still open to other thoughts on the matter:

Artists and photographers are, deep down, 90% unoriginal. We borrow each others’ ideas. We forget where they came from. We copy, transpose, modify, build on, and find inspiration from diverse other people. Much of our unoriginality is acceptably divergent, and this is a good thing. Art could not exist at all were all forms of copying verboten.

That's a very refreshing statement. He then says he thinks this instance crossed a line, but his mind isn't entirely made up. I hope that, on further consideration, he'll realize that this is something even more basic than artistic inspiration—it's a proliferation of knowledge about the natural world, and one that shouldn't make him feel like a chump at all.


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  1. icon
    TtfnJohn (profile), 5 May 2012 @ 12:36pm

    Re: Seriously?

    Its not simply a black at it's a previously unknown or unrecognized species of carpenter ant which is what makes the photo so valuable as basic knowledge in Wild's field. And yeah ants are among the most successful species on the planet AND most of them are black. From that perspective so what?!

    Wild has said in his piece that he wouldn't have withheld permission in any event which removed the triple damages threat.

    While the drawing is a copy of the ant from the the photo it's also transformative. Wild says as much and leaves us with the question of is this fair without acknowledgement? Copyright or no copyright. Wild also says this goes on a great deal of the time where artists in other fields take a photo and build, say, a drawing from it. And does this cross the murky line. Fair enough because the line IS murky. And then he goes on to say that photographers and other visual artist ought to be finding a way to re-enforce each other rather than get into this kind of counter productive spat. Wild is right there as well. If for no other reason than someone how does line art illustration may see things in a photo that the photographer doesn't and bring them to light to the benefit of all.

    This is the sort of instance where IP purists would insist on ownership as the be all and end all rather than admit that there IS something that an illustrator can bring to a photo that the person who took it can't see which adds to the body of knowledge about the subject of the photo.

    Beautiful though that isn't the case here the drawing itself is beautiful in how it highlights colours and lighting not present in the photo. And the the transformative lettering and fonts add to the photo rather than take away from it. Wild thinks it crossed the murky line where credit is required and I agree. I'd have given it in the same way one does in a bibliography. If I'd been the LA Times or the artist I'd have cussed the day the *AA's talked law courts and legislators into triple liability for all situations including academic and reporting purposes. It's just plain silly.

    Personally I'd have credited the photo and Wild but that's just me.

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