One of my photos goes viral… sort of.

5 minute read

October 24, 2012, 11:12 PM

So apparently one of my photos has gone viral.  Remember this photo?

Code Pink demonstration on July 4

I took this photo on July 4, 2006 in front of the White House.  It first appeared on Schumin Web in a Journal entry posted July 5, 2006 about a trip I made to DC on July 4.  It also ran as the Photo Feature later in the same month.

Then a few years later, in 2009, that photo got morphed into this:


And then it went viral with the 2012 election season and all of that.  I’ve seen it on Imgur.  I’ve seen it on GottaLaff’s Political Carnival site.  I’ve seen it on various Facebook feeds.  I’ve also seen it pop up on Tumblr time and time and time again.

The edited photo apparently originated here, on Jason Laning’s site.  My feelings on this are somewhat mixed.

First of all, I appreciate the sentiment expressed in the new version of the photo.  I feel that this does a pretty accurate job in characterizing the way too many left-leaning individuals are about a Democratic president, in that they will vote for that person no matter what they do.  I find that a bit disturbing.  These are the sorts of people that kept Republican president George W. Bush on a very short leash.  But then I’ve noticed that with Democratic president Barack Obama, a lot of these same people will just roll over and say how much they love Barack Obama, more or less blindly.  That is disturbing because the Democratic president basically has free rein to screw you over worse than the Republican ever would, but it’s okay because they’re the “good guys”.  And for those of you leaning rightward, don’t be so smug.  Swap the two sides, and this describes many of you all, too.  The people I have a lot of respect for are the people who stick to their guns on the issues that matter to them the most, and who will put the screws on the people in power, regardless of whether those people are wearing the red uniforms or the blue uniforms.  This applies to folks all across the political continuum, even if I don’t necessarily agree with what they’re advocating for.

However, as far as I’m concerned, this is copyright infringement.  The illustration is unquestionably a derivative work of my original photograph, of which I am the copyright holder.  Note identical positioning of the people, the same expressions, and identical outfits.  As of the time of this writing, I make my work available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.  This means that downstream users are free to more or less do whatever they wish with my photos, even to modify or use for commercial purposes, as long as they abide by the terms of the license.  In a nutshell, those terms require that I be attributed somewhere as the author of the photo (i.e. Attribution), and that the new work be released under the same license as the original, or using a different but compatible license (i.e. ShareAlike).  Additionally, potential downstream users are more than welcome to talk to me and discuss different licensing arrangements.  I’m pretty flexible on these things.  However, anything short of either attribution and sharealike or a negotiated license is copyright infringement.  Copyright infringement is a Bad Thing.  And it really irritates me that this happens with my photos, where I have made it so easy to be in full compliance.

And honestly, it bothers me, not because the photo has been heavily retouched and reconfigured with a different message, but because the chain of attribution has been broken.  Realize that to be in full compliance, the words “Ben Schumin” or “The Schumin Web” (or both) need to appear somewhere in the completed work.  Look at a Journal entry or photo set where I include someone else’s photo.  This one, for example.  Right beneath the photo of the cinderblock is a credit line, explaining where that image came from.  In that case, it was a Wikimedia Commons user.  That user also lists their photo under a free license.  Since I provide Schumin Web under a similar, compatible license as the original and also provide attribution, I am in full compliance with the license.  And even if you don’t do a blanket permission as I do, there are other ways to indicate the license, like in the photo credit.  It’s that easy, folks.

Now in this case, I can place the blame squarely on Jason Laning.  On the page where the modified photo originated, my name appears nowhere.  No photo credit whatsoever.  Thus Laning broke the chain of attribution.  Whether this is attributable to malice or sloppy compliance work is up for interpretation, but I suspect it’s just sloppy work, i.e. Laning forgot to include a credit, or didn’t realize that attribution was necessary.  Based on the lack of attribution for his other works that are based on real photos, I suspect that he doesn’t know any better, but should have done his due diligence before publishing images derived from others’ work.  It’s okay to build on and modify existing content if the copyright holder allows it (and I do).  But it’s not okay to not provide attribution to the people who helped you by providing you the basis on which to create your new work.

This is actually very similar to the case regarding Shepard Fairey’s Barack Obama “Hope” poster.  The poster is well known, but the poster is in fact a derivative work of an Associated Press photograph.  And as Fairey did not seek permission from the Associated Press to modify and distribute its copyrighted photograph, Fairey committed copyright infringement.  And the AP rightly nailed him for it.

And don’t think that the press is only the victim on this kind of stuff, either.  They occasionally commit this, too.  I remember back in 2008, I was visiting my parents in Stuarts Draft for a weekend, and reading the Saturday edition of The News Virginian that weekend, I spotted this photo of Roanoke from “An Urban Comparison” on the front page of the paper accompanying an article about Roanoke, and I did not find my name listed anywhere for the photo.  I called them out on it the next Monday, discussing it with their managing editor over the phone.

All in all, I’m just really annoyed that my photo is making the rounds on the Internet without my name attached to it.  I’m kind of secretly pleased that my photo is getting so much exposure (even in a modified form), but I’m not on board with the fact that no one knows it’s my work.

Quote: I would like to give a "thank you" to GottaLaff from Political Carnival, however. When I discovered the photo on Laffy's site, I discussed the matter with her over the Twitter, and she brought her site into full compliance with my license via an image credit line, even though Laning himself failed to do so.

Postscript: Would you consider helping me out? If you see either the original photo or the modified photo floating out on the Internet somewhere without my name attached to it, please consider leaving them a link to this Journal entry in a comments field or something. This kind of discussion about proper treatment of derivative works deserves to go viral, but it probably won't because it's not as easily digested as the message on the modified sign...