Photographer Learns To Embrace The Public Domain... And Is Better Off For It

from the it's-a-fucking-lighthouse dept

There are constant debates over the value of the public domain. As you know, in the US, Congress has repeatedly expanded and extended copyright law to effectively wipe out the public domain. No new works have gone into the public domain because of copyright law (other than works by the Federal government) in many years, and that likely won't change for many years either. The only way works go into the public domain these days are through some sort of public dedication, such as by using the Creative Commons CC0 license -- though very careful lawyers may remind you that even this is not technically putting the work in the public domain. Under the current Copyright Act there really isn't a way to officially put something in the public domain. A copyright holder can only make an effective promise that the work should be treated as if it's in the public domain by declaring it so.

The fact that the law is so hostile to the public domain is no accident. If you look at the history of the debates about copyright shows the legacy copyright industries being actively hostile to the public domain, and making a variety of silly, nonsensical (and flat out wrong) arguments about the public domain. They've argued that putting works in the public domain removes all value from the work. They've also claimed that putting works in the public domain will cause it to be over-utilized, since it's free, thereby harming its value in a different way. The fact that these two arguments seem to conflict with each other was more or less ignored. And then you even have the extremely ridiculous claims that the public domain is theft of private property. Paul Heald has done some tremendous research on how all of the hyperbolic statements about how awful the public domain is simply aren't true. But that's looking at historical data.

It appears that some content creators are realizing the value of the public domain as well. A Swiss photographer, Samuel Zeller has written an absolutely brilliant piece on how much value he's received by putting many of his works into the public domain via CC0 licenses (he also uses CC-BY licenses on many of his other photos). Zeller focuses on a wonderful tool that I've made use of many times myself over the years: Unsplash, which is an absolutely amazing community of photographers all sharing their brilliant photos (in high res) under CC0 public domain dedications (as an aside, if you sign up for it, Unsplash will send you a regular email every week to 10 days showing a selection of their latest photos, and they tend to be stunning). Zeller explains his own discovery of Unsplash:
About two years ago I stumbled on Unsplash, a website with free (do whatever you want) high resolution photos. I love the concept instantly, people could just upload their images and give them away for free under a Creative Commons CC0 license.

So Far, I uploaded 184 images on my Unsplash profile, they've been viewed over 63,000,000 times and downloaded over 613,000 times.

Just insane numbers.
And from that, good things result:
The amount of traffic Unsplash generate to my portfolio is huge. The number of referrers I have is constantly growing, many websites and blogs use my images and give a link back. My website is no longer just a small island in the sea that nobody see, it's a fucking lighthouse...

My latest and biggest client found me because of Unsplash, in fact I never really searched for clients, they found me in the first place. (isn't that what every photographer dream of?)
From there, Zeller addresses the common myths around why you shouldn't give your work away for free. First up, by giving away his photographs this way, is he losing money?
It is a a matter of perspective. If I put all my images on a stock photography website I could make some money out of it.

But stock photography is dying, people pay less and less for images. I know, I worked for years in a design agency where we regularly had to buy images for clients, and our clients budgets were always getting smaller.

Why should I need to sell images if I have clients paying me to shoot specific images? To me working for a client face to face is rewarding, way more than making money on digital sales to people I will never interact with.
This goes back to a point we've been making for years: your past work acts as an advertisement for your ability to be hired for future work. And if you give that work away for free, it acts as free advertising. Zeller seems to have discovered that to a fairly extreme level.

On to the next myth: giving away your work means that it somehow "loses value."
This is something people asked me before and the answer is: no.

My photography keep improving, more people stumble on my work and I've got more contacts, more projects and clients than before.

An image has value because someone has an use for it. It has absolutely no value if it's sitting uselessly in my hard-drive or if it's just on social media waiting to get liked. Sure it has emotional vlaue but don't get me wrong, I need money to live and pay the bills.

the images I give away for free are like a teaser of what I can do. Think of it as a "try before you buy" option.
Later he notes:
There's no point in being talented if nobody can see what you do.
Now you can make a totally reasonable argument that Zeller's situation doesn't necessarily apply to everyone. There is a combination of both skill and luck in getting your work so widely recognized. If you're just not that good, it's going to make things that much more difficult. And even if you're good, sometimes you just don't get seen anyway, but that's got nothing to do with copyright. Freeing up images certainly increases the opportunity that people will discover your work. If luck is the issue, freeing up images is like giving luck many more chances.

The other argument, obviously, is that photography is different than other creative works -- and that's absolutely true. However, I will note that independent photographers historically have often been the most aggressive and vocal about wanting stronger and stronger copyright protections and being against relatively modest improvements to copyright law. Many have become so focused on licensing images they've taken in the past that they haven't even considered alternatives or how freeing up images and how that might help.

Anyway Zeller's photographs are pretty damn awesome. Check out his Unsplash page and his larger archive of photos as well. Here's one of his many cool photos, because I feel like we shouldn't write a whole post about him without including at least one image:
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Filed Under: copyright, free, photographs, public domain, samuel zeller, unsplash

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  1. icon
    Whatever (profile), 7 Aug 2016 @ 11:11pm

    Sort of a dumb story, because it's playing against a straw man:

    "everyone says the public domain is bad".

    The problem is quite simple: For someone who is relatively unknown, or has only a small local following, there are certain advantages to licensing your work for free (see, he doesn't use the public domain, but a very unrestricted license, the work is still copyright). Any exposure when you are unknown is good exposure.

    Now, you can also be entirely certainly that not all of his work is in the "public domain". Just like free samples out front of the cookie store, he's not giving away bags of cookies just for fun - he's marketing and promoting his brand.

    Would it work for everyone? Well, here's the rub: if too many people are giving away "free food", then consumers will just walk around enjoying all the freebies and won't buy any more. If a free sample is too generous, or there are too many of them, then the promotional effects may be outweighed by the erosion of the marketplace.

    So except for a whole lot of straw on the ground from mowing down yet another strawman, the article accomplishes very little because it doesn't consider the wider implications or how this would work if more people were doing it.

    (oh, and this comment delayed 24 hours be the Techdirt board of Censorship)

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