Tuesday, 6 April 2010

"Too Perfect to Print" (you're a copyright infringer until you prove otherwise).

Two weeks ago a Joanna Ornowska (student of mine) came to me. She was frustrated that she'd been unable to have some images printed at a local pharmacy. The story has since been reported widely and now circulates freely in various forms, no doubt continuing to evolve as it lives it's own life as 'content'.

It came out as we were poring over yet another edit of her project detailing her recovery from skin cancer and Hepatitis C. We were wrapping up when she asked if I'd also write a letter to confirm that she was my photography student. She went on to explain how she'd made some pictures for a friend but when that friend had tried to have them printed, the store clerk refused, because the images were "too professional". She (the friend and subject of the photographs) would have to prove that they were hers to print.

Joanna didn't know how she could do this - she'd since gone to the store with her friend the clerk hadn't believed her. She'd not embedded any file information (as she normally would) because she'd no intention of keeping the images. She'd made them (in camera) away from University as a quick gift, a favour for a friend to take home to her family in Poland. That was the end of it.

How could she now prove that she hadn't stolen these images and was in the act of having someone else illegally infringe another party's copyright?

The clerk demanded a headed letter (does anyone still emboss their stationary?) with her business address and details on it. She explained that she was a student and not self-employed yet,  could she instead bring a letter from her University ?

The clerk wouldn't accept a letter from me (her tutor) to confirm that she was a photography student of mine.

I tweeted the story.

We worked on the premise that out of this frustration we would make something good. We would raise her profile and use Boots' to do it; did you see the work that she does copyright by the way? It's very good, you really should, here.

There are though a bunch of other things that interest and concern me with this little story:

The issues of Authorship versus Ownership (ironically I see that Joanna isn't being credited in many of the picture usages and to the best of my knowledge is receiving no fees).

The life of content once we release a digital version into the internet (many of the stories have varying details and often fail to mention Joanna by name).

How we perceive and value the life of that content (often inappropriately applying analogue attitudes and sensibilities).

And most pertinent today (as the Digital Economy bill is debated in the UK House of Commons): the default action of a store to arbitrarily assume an individual to be guilty, until they're able to (again arbitrarily) prove their innocence.



  1. Hi Jonathan

    Hope this finds you well.

    I have come up against this situation before and although I am with Joanna in this case this is not a clear cut as it at first appears.

    As you know I hate the justify your existence brigade but unfortunately the sort of practice that Joanna has come up against is because some unscrupulous individuals will by a print, scan it, and print as many as they want cutting out the photographer and there income. It is precisely because of that sort of behaviour that we now have the Digital Economy bill. Unfortunately that is the way it is going to go and can’t see it getting any better.

    Rick Medlock

  2. if you're interested in more views on copyright the British Council has a set of opinion points over here http://www.counterpoint-online.org/copyright-1710-2010/

    what would copyright look like if it were designed today instead of 300 years ago?