Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Ripped Off Again

October 2004

By Mike Gould

Dang. Or, rather, #$%)*(^@%?!! You would think I would have learned by now. The Internet is indeed the Wild West, where anything not nailed down will be stolen, eventually. I'm telling you, it's enough to make you lose your faith in your fellow surfers.

A Cautionary Tale
It all began innocently enough. I was reading a Popular Entertainment Weekly (PEW) that shall remain nameless due to ongoing legal conniptions. I turned to the back where the lounge ads are and there was an ad for a bar featuring blues artist Blind Avocado Streetwise (not his real name), which sported a nice picture of him that was lifted directly from a web site I designed and maintain. This was a picture I took and posted to the web with a clear notice of "©2000, Mike Gould, All Rights Reserved".

To make the story even more exquisite, this is the second time this has happened with this particular PEW. The first time the miscreant was a different bar hosting a musician, and the bar claimed that they had lifted the picture from another site which had stolen it from me. We resolved our issues amicably and I started putting symbols everywhere. To no avail, it would seem.

Making matters even more complicated, the site hosting the picture is for a local musical festival (which I am circumlocuting here to make lawyers happy) which is sponsored in part by PEW. A sticky situation indeed; I have opted to let the festival lawyers talk to PEW's lawyers.

Tombstone Territory
The issue here is protection of the rights of artists to control their works. Any photo I take belongs to me, unless somebody hires me to shoot it and negotiates with me for rights to its use. Usually this is no big deal; I enjoy sharing my work with the world on various web sites, and am not too worried about someone making off with my vacation pictures.

But this was a clearly-marked copyrighted picture, one of my best, and one I planned to market some day. (It's obviously marketable - they printed it, didn't they?) And now that it has been printed, I can't enter it in contests, and marketing becomes problematic. I suppose I should be flattered that they liked the picture enough to steal it. Hey, now I can say "I've had my work printed in PEW!"

Branding Irony
In 20/20 hindsight, I should have embedded the copyright notice right into the photograph itself. This can always be stripped out by a miscreant, but if they do that and are caught, they will face serious court costs. As it is, I have a feeling that I won't be seeing any recompense at all for this, due to the political situation outlined above.

I just went through a similar round of prophylaxis with a site I am working on for a local photographer. Unlike me, he makes his living from his pictures, so it is much more important that he prevent rip-offs. On his site, you see small examples of the pictures, called "thumbnails". You click on these and you can see larger examples of the work. We figured the small pix weren't likely to be snatched, but the larger ones were vulnerable. So we used a feature of Photoshop that enables you to overwrite any photo with a copyright notice. The pix on his site now have lettering slanting across the important details, declaring his copyright.

Humble li'l ol' me, I thought I didn't need this on my modest work. Hah!

Other sorts of Web-related chicanery abound. I was commiserating with a fellow Web designer who had submitted a detailed site design bid to a new client. The client hired someone else and that person built a site that was clearly based on my friend's design. As the client was a well-known local University with better-paid lawyers than my friend, he opted not to pursue the matter. But it still rankles him.

I really wish they had driver's licenses for the Internet. In order to get your IP address and be allowed out on the open wire, you would have to study and pass a test. The test would cover basic email netiquette, how to report, prosecute, and execute spammers, and the basic laws of copyright. Just because something is posted on the 'net, doesn't mean it belongs to everybody.

With the explosive Big-Bang growth of the online universe, morals, ethics, and plain politeness have been left in the dust. We have raised a generation of kids who think nothing of ripping off musicians, filmmakers and photographers. OK, PEW isn't run by kids (I hope), so my rant is losing its focus here. Where was I? Oh yeah: Tarnation! There oughta be a law! (Snort).

Well, there is, it's just that nobody seems to be paying attention to it and there aren't any Marshals riding into Dodge City to round up the data rustlers.

The Rules
For the record, anything posted on the Web is the property of its creator. You can't grab it for your site, can't print it in your magazine, can't incorporate it into your tourist tee shirts unless you get permission from the creator, and maybe pay a fee.

If PEW had asked me nicely, I would have been happy to let them use the picture in exchange for a few bucks and a photo credit. Instead all I got was a big surprise when I opened the magazine and a bad taste in my mouth. And you got a rant.

Mike Gould is a mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs MondoDyne Web Works, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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