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. identicon
    Mike from Ottawa, 6 May 2012 @ 4:51pm

    Get your facts right.

    If the drawing was copied from the photo, then "What was copied from the photograph was simply the knowledge of what the ant looks like" is patently false. What was copied from the photograph was a particular arrangement of the ant's limbs and the angle, framing and lighting of the photograph. For instance, ant antennae are not fixed and immobile, so the positions of the antennae here are not just 'knowledge of what the ant looks like'. There is a world of possible positions of the antennae, legs, head, abdomen and thorax and the drawing has copied the specific arrangement of these mobile elements from the photo.

    If the drawer were merely copying the knowledge, he'd have had an all but unlimited number of possible poses to choose from and yet somehow managed to choose the exact same pose as the photo. Had the guy doing the drawing altered the positions of the legs and antennae he'd have had his own drawing and nobody would be claiming he'd done anything wrong. Nobody can copy facts about historical events, for instance, but if I were to copy the text and maps word for word and line for line from Dave Powell and Dave Friedrich's book 'The Maps of Chickamauga' and claim I was just copying knowledge of the battle of Chickamauga I'd be recognized as talking utter rot. In both the case of the ant photo and the book, you have a particular expression of facts about the world and it is that particular expression that is, and should be, protected.

    One may question how much creativity and skill (elements that go to whether copyright can subsist in a work) went into any particular copyright work, and some have more than others. In nature photography, there is a skill involved in selecting a pose, framing and lighting that succeed in conveying information about the natural world in a clear and useful way. If you don't think so, try taking your own photos of ants!

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