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
    Ron (profile), 4 Jun 2012 @ 2:37pm

    What is the Correct "C" Word?

    I think Brian C.'s point is well taken. Alex Wild is a business man, in the business of photography and he works very hard in making certain his images appear high in search engine returns - fur the purpose of selling images.

    Alex Wild used the wrong “C” word (for chump) to describe himself.

    Dugald name is that of a cultural icon and his impact was broad.

    Alex Wild attacked a DEAD MAN. One who can neither defend himself, nor explain. I am no lawyer but I do not think anyone has a claim for defamation once they die. Again, Wild attacked a DEAD MAN.

    Creepy: is the right word for someone who attacks a dead man.

    Scientific American is supposed to be about SCIENCE.

    Wild’s attack was at the blog at Scientific American.
    Wild is a photographer – and he conducts himself not as a SCIENTIST but as a vengeful child in business. He takes advantage of his position at Scientific American to identify a dead man. WHY?

    The vindictive whinings of Alex Wild belong in the world of photography and there is a place that, it’s Photo Shelter.
    Alex Wild’s place is not in science. There are many great photographers that focus (no pun intended) on the sciences but the point is THEY ARE PHOTOGRAPHERS AND SO IS WILD.
    Clueless: is the right word for someone who masquerades as a scientist to expand his business.

    Scientific American claims to be the oldest continuously published magazine in the U.S. which brings its readers unique insights about developments in science and technology for over 160 years. The magazine further claims a combination of unmatched credibility and authority …
    In his blog at Scientific American Alex Wild says he is a photographer.

    “This year (2012) for the first time, I am primarily self-employed as a photographer. My opportunity costs are higher: $45,000. $35k/year is what I made as a research postdoc at the university, and 10k/year is my previous annual photography income. The opportunity cost of transitioning to a full-time photographer is the amount I must make to recover my lost income. So, my total yearly expenses, as a full-time professional photographer, are $6,000 (direct costs) +$45,000 (wage) = $51,000.”

    Chump IS the right word for Scientific American for falling for Wild’s claim to be a scientist.
    Wild blogged: I … denied a scientist permission to use my photos of her ants in a paper headed for PLoS Biology. … The problem is that PLoS content is managed under a Creative Commons (=CC) licensing scheme. I don’t do CC. Overall it’s not a bad licensing scheme, but for one sticking point: CC allows users to re-distribute an image to external parties.

    A scientist, a real scientist whose focus was science would not have denied the use of the image. “I don’t do CC.” NOT EVEN FOR SCIENCE.

    Crazy IS the right word for letting Wild blog at Scientific American.

    There are hundreds of talented scientists engaging in science for the purpose of advancement in science. Scientific American should provide a SCIENTIST, devoted to advancing SCIENCE the opportunity to blog.

    Scientific American should not be in the business of promoting Wild’s photography business and attacking a dead cultural icon.

    When Scientific American lets a photographer, whose business is photography and NOT SCIENCE blog they betray the reader and their own standards. Wild blogs about business advertising but isn’t this exactly what Scientific American is doing in letting Alex Wild, a photographer in the business of photography, blog at their site. Wild makes the case clearly himself at his own blog:

    “I know how frequently infringement happens. I often find my images plastered across the home pages of pest control companies that just went ahead and lifted photos off my web page, or off someone else’s web page. I even get a few particularly brazen companies that ask for free use of images because they will be “educating” people about the services that their company provides (yes, and I also enjoy those nice educational segments about car insurance and light beer I see on the television).”

    Wild looks more like a clown than a chump.

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