Free Source Photography and Copyright

What if photography were treated like academic research?  It’s a logical question for a academic researcher with a passion for photography to ask.  As a scientist, one might be driven by the challenge of discovery and a desire to understand the world.  It’s also why many people climb, travel, write and do photography.  Pondering the notion of free science, intellectual property and copyrights begs the question:

"What if research were constrained in the same way that copyrights protect photos?"

In general, I am of the opinion that if the modern research process were treated in a similar way that modern photography is, we’d still be riding horses and crossing the Atlantic in sail boats. 

Some might say that photographs are just collections of data points.  Are they really so different from the graphs of data points found in academic journals like Science and Nature?  The scientist knows that although they’ve discovered something, it’s only useful if turned into a technology for people to use.  I know that unless I use the photos that I create, they will serve no purpose and will be lost to obscurity.

Here’s the basics, research institutions employ people like scientists.  Money comes from governments or industry and is assigned based on project proposals, grant applications, etc.  So maybe I get $80,000 to run a research project to develop active-wing technologies and then publish my results in a peer-reviewed journal, or patent the new design or process and translate these new ideas into technologies which benefit society.  Articles in journals might include anywhere from 10-100 references, so you see the road-map of how discoveries were brought about.

There exists an ideal, that every small advancement in science brings the collective of society closer to the stage of enlightenment where we understand the universe on the same level as the gods.  Ah, ok, that’s a bit much – the point is that we’re always moving forward, and that science should belong to and be freely used by everyone in society.  So when Einstein discovers and proposes the Theory of Relativity, it can be used by scientists in the US, Germany, Japan, Korea, China, Brazil, wherever – to develop technologies which give society more freedom.

So in general, a scientific discovery belongs to the people.  Old discoveries are used to feed the creative process and bring about new discoveries.  A photograph belongs to the photographer.  The content is copyrighted and can (in theory) only be used by the originator.  Everyone else in society must start from zero.

Like with photography, there’s literally millions of ideas sitting around in journal articles, many uncredited, never used, obscure to society.  There’s even more photos and images on hard drives, in shoe-boxes, laying somewhere no one remembers – being useless.

Are the photos created just to exist, or to be used?  How is defining and basing my work off of Einstein’s that much different from using an image from another photographer to create a new work?  Forget the laws and complications we’ve made for society.  Very few ideas are new, in general, everything is based off of something else.  Even Picasso based his work on off of other artists.  Who was the originator of Cubism?  How has society benefited?

I produce the images for this website because that’s how I want to use them.  I don’t want other people profiting from my images, but its pointless to horde images on a hard drive and waste energy worrying that someone is stealing them.  If one of my images inspires a viewer to advance and challenge their own ambitions, I think that’s a good thing.  If a photo is taken and used to in a Pepsi ad without my approval, that would piss me off.  If Pepsi initiates an ad campaign based off of my photos, but redo it all in a new photo shoot – I’m generally ok with that.  I wouldn’t see it as loosing money, because I’m not in the business of photography, I’m in the hobby of it.

"Ahh but it’s my vision, it’s my work it’s part of my soul.  Curse the bastard who uses my photo or copies my photo flare!"

Copyrights for songs belong to artists and musicians, and corporations, but Michael Stipe openly tells fans that there are songs from REM that belong to them now – because it’s the fans who are actually using them, who make the music live.

The craziness of copyright protection is often fueled by wannabe lawyers on photo forums, or posts on The Online Photographer.  Horror stories of photos used without permission, and the dream of big-money settlements – but largely is manifested as wasted emotions.

What if photographs were allowed to evolve like technologies do?  Imagine a world where art and science were equally free for those in society to use for our collective artistic advancement.

Imagine the explosion of creativity we could unleash on the world if we removed the constraints we’ve placed upon the creative process.

2 thoughts on “Free Source Photography and Copyright

  1. Interesting idea Mark.

    It almost seems to me that at present the general public does seem to believe that photographs belong to the public domain. Copyrights are violated thousands of times each day (I imagine) by people who either knowingly do so (thinking that it will never catch up with them) or unknowingly violate these laws (morons!)

    Copyright law has been around since 1662 (shortly after the invention of the printing press), which means people should have wised up by now. The explosion of digital content, the effortless distribution over the internet, and the lack of policing technology has made it excedingly difficult for many independent photographers to carry on their trade and put food on the table. It’s a strange juxtaposition, because we are surrounded by an “image driven” marketplace, but at the same time photography is being devalued by the illegal or underpriced circulation of images.

    I think it’s a real problem that people just don’t make the connection between theft and things like LimeWire and copyright violation. I just recently visited a friend’s office in Seattle and discovered that he had violated my copyright on two images which were very difficult and expensive to make. Not only did I loose the opportunity to license those images to him (for a few bucks) but my images lost value because I no longer have control over all of the images’ use. In other words, I cannot say to a future paying client “no, these images are not in use, and I can sell you exclusive licensing.”

    My advice to people out there in the creative industries is: stick up for yourself, put your foot down when you know you have been taken advantage, get your legal paperwork together and do it by the books, and for pete’s sake take the limewire and similar apps off your computer. Do unto others…


  2. Mark says:


    I agree with what you’re saying. Like many things in society, copyright is a rather obscure concept, just a printed line placed on books, until someone gets into a creative industry like photography, and becomes educated on their rights by other photographers.

    I think it’s interesting though that art and science are treated fundamentally differently, and viewed differently by society. Science is seen to belong to society, while artistic creations are taken to belong to a certain artist. The thing that sticks in the back of my mind is that at some level both creative and technical inspiration comes from your environment, and it’s almost impossible to say that any idea is original.

    Why then do we create such constraints on non-commercial art? I think it would be awesome, and equally beneficial to society, if we had an institution like the National Science Foundation for the Arts. A National Art Foundation (NAF) could distribute millions of dollars in funding to artists for the sole purpose of pushing the artistic level of society to a higher level.


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