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The Evolution of Digital Photo Product Copyright

If you know a chess photographer chances are you know them as hard-working, driven professionals who take an awful lot of crap from chess fans, chess websites and chess organisers. Fans stealing their prized photos, organisers giving them away. They receive no credit for their work and people share and enjoy the fruits of their labour without the slightest thought about the author of the works. Or is it as simple as that?


I co-run a fairly popular chess page with a team of dedicated editors and some of them are photographers and know exactly what it is like to have your work stolen. However, we need to go back to the beginning of this debate to understand and define the situation properly. If the internet did not exist then photographers would have their photos permanently on an offline storage device. Anyone requiring use of those photos would need to speak directly to the photographer or their agent asking for permission and after giving the scope of what you are trying to do. This is actually what used to happen it might surprise you to know. Then along came the internet and people got confused. Why? Well in the early days of the internet you had to work damn fecking hard to get anything. I know I was one of those guys that spent all day in a UNIX lab surfing the early web on bulletin boards, gopher and ftp sites. Then if a content owner (photographer in this case) wanted to make something appear on the early web they uploaded it to an ftp site or gopher site and indexed it so the search engines could help other users to find it. Ok, lets take all that in. Would a content owner of sane mind source original content, format it for upload, upload it and index and post the index to a search engine if they didn't want anyone to touch it. Well no not really. In the early web the idea of marketing your content was in its infancy and you either wanted people to have your stuff or not. So in the early days of the internet, the technology or lack of it provided the built-in safeguard for the content owners intellectual property protection and copyright. Great! Well no not great in fact very bad. In the late 80's and early 90's things really took off with the technology and the web got smart. Browsers were invented and every man, woman and hacker was creating their own website and uploading random content to it. It was a lot easier to upload your content now, you needed to get a domain, host and and ftp site and the time to wait for your modem to dial up and make those annoying sounds connect and then take half a day to upload your 2K photo. 


The technology was now less of a barrier to stop others taking your content without so much as a by-your-leave. I think you know where I'm going with this one...ok so back to the future of the web. We have websites devoted to photo content owners like flickr and photobucket. We have smartphones making loading to the web instantaneous. We have social platforms like FB, twitter, instagram that make searching for and sharing content simple and hard to control. The internet only exists because the early creators of it waived copyright and intellectual property otherwise it would not have been the interconnected borderless experience it is today but random and fenced networks with random content. Take for instance a chess photographer who adds privacy to their photos on Facebook and posts it to their personal profile where only their friends can see the photo. Any friend can download this photo and upload it anywhere with different privacy and nothing to indicate who the original owner was. Ok you decide not to share your works of chess photographic art with your friends because of one or two untrustworthy ones. You go to Flickr and Photobucket, ah the professional photo album sites, they allow you to protect the image from being downloaded or so they say. Until you realise a simple screen snapshot or snipping tool can allow any browser to take your photos. Ok so you don't upload them any where except the website of the chess organiser who is paying you to take the photos. You do this and the first thing that organiser does is post all your photos to their public gallery without a proper credit to you. Fans come along download or copy the link of the photo and post to their personal pages or to their chess pages with the credit that the organiser put on the photo which is usually nothing at all. 


Oh dear So here comes the rub. A photo downloaded and uploaded of your copyrighted material without permission is clearly theft if no effort to obtain credit or permission is made. However what if the person simply pastes your photo image link on a social platform which reads the photo and posts a preview of the photo, a thumbnail, but in actual fact a full sized photo on their chess page? Wait! all you've done is post a link to the original photo you have not downloaded or uploaded anything. Is this theft? Ermmm...yeh of course it is by the same definition earlier, because your social platform automatically loads the photo doesn't exonerate you from blame. But hey wait a minute, doesn't the content owner have a duty to provide information about the owner of the copyright image including the extent of the copyright usage, yes they do have responsibility to this regard but again the absence of the this is not a green light to grand theft of their life's work. There is to be compromise and a reasonable effort on both the content owner and the content user. Content owners are usually happy to have content users happy to use their content and content users are usually happy to tell their friends where they got this cool new content they are posting all over their personal pages. So what to do about this situation now? 


Well, I had a terrific idea. It was that I provide a service to chess photographers where we enforce the copyright to their images and they would pay a small subscription for this service and any content users who we referred to them for commercial use of the photos. Getty Images and Corbis do exactly this but their terms of service are very much more expensive as the photographer is seen as the commodity and they give up a big chunk of their equity to "join the club". Chess photographers in the main don't have this luxury of effectively inviting an expensive middle guy into the deal with tournament organiser paying pennies and chess fans unlikely to request to pay for their photos. Seemed like a good idea at the time and I pitched it to about six of the most active and celebrated chess photographers. One said they thought the idea was a good one the others were silent. None of them took it any further. Other solutions would be to leave photos by photographers altogether and create your own. I have seen an increase in the use of screen captures of chess recorded videos or live streaming. Freeze captures of live streaming chess are copyright of the company who provide the live feed but seem to generate less controversy when used by a content sharer or user. We have seen increasingly the use of this form of sharing as photos have become more and more of a scarce and precious commodity where seeking permission and giving credit is sometimes deemed not enough by the content owner. I have also seen the increase in tournaments with no official photographers and no photo galleries on the tournament website, all deliberately to emphasize that the tournament owner ultimately has say over who is allowed to "create copyright" on their copyright. They sometimes have an enthusiastic press officer or favoured journalist take photos and load them tacitly to the web. All very clandestine actually and a throwback to the early days of the web but instead of gopher and bulletin boards it is social media personal timelines and photo clouds. There is also another exciting innovation for digital assets distribution called the blockchain. Chess Club Live has created a social network which assigns tokens for each action on their network. They have created a feature called secret photos which allows users of the network to upload photos which can be viewed on request. You request with offering tokens which represent value and can reward content creators for their content. This is perhaps not just the future of sharing but the future of the internet.


 So we have some chess photographers who don't want to take any simple steps to make the process of identifying the owner of a photo easier nor do they give themselves credit when they post their own or other photographer's photos and take no active interest in exploring novel avenues of protecting their intellectual property. Some content owners use this failure to protect their content as an excuse to beat up the innocent bystanders and occasional sharers of content that is the lifeblood of the internet. If you find yourself as a content owner constantly "calling people out" overuse of your content then you have some soul searching either to discover what it is you are missing in terms of making copyright information clear and the scope fo use of your content. 


There are some photographers who have embraced the innovations in copyright protection and are still able to make a decent living. There are content sharers who are themselves providing a service of bringing an audience to the content owner or creator, this relationship is sometimes not overtly agreed but implied from other relationships in the context of chess media. The chess journalist who is prompted to write a blog or article from an over-enthusiastic chess organiser, a chess website who has a large following and would direct traffic to a content owners page, traffic which in the hands of the enterprising content owner is money in the pocket through pay per click ads and referrals and many other similar setups. Also, can content granted as permissible to post or share by the content owner be retrospectively withdrawn and if so does the content sharer or any third parties commit intellectual property theft retrospectively, at the moment of the change of heart by the content owner or never at all? It's a murky world, isn't it? This is never an excuse to avoid doing the right thing as a content user or sharer but does put the onus on those content users and sharers who want to become "content responsible" that they have a greater responsibility on sharing and using content responsibly and yes if that image is "orphaned" with no owner information then maybe it is best to step away from it.

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