by Glyn Moody

Filed Under:
memories, photographs, pictures, pope

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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  1. identicon
    Beech, 26 Mar 2013 @ 6:56pm


    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

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