Monday, February 26, 2007

Bloggers: your reputation is in your own hands

It's become a commonplace story for bloggers to express moral outrage. A blogger comes up with some bit or some scoop; somebody from the "mainstream media" uses said bit or said scoop without crediting the blogger; bloggers express outrage. Recently, The Big Lead suspects a scoop of its own was used without credit by PTI. A few months ago, YAY Sports was upset with Scoop Jackson for stealing a bit. Last year Colin Cowherd used some material from the M Zone. And people were (rightly) angry about these things.

That's fair. Anytime you are borrowing somebody else's ideas, you should identify the source of those ideas. I teach English; I emphasize again and again that you must cite any borrowed material. Bloggers have the right to moral outrage when their material is used without credit, or even when their comrades in blogging have their material used without credit.

But, Mr. High Horse Blogger, you probably have your own issues to worry about.

You're probably flouting copyright law every time you blog.

Because photos are copyrighted material. Just because it is easy to copy and paste pictures with a computer doesn't make it legal. Just because everybody else is doing it does not make it right.

If you are going to use a photo that you lifted from somewhere around the web, at the very least you need to credit the source of the photo. But I'm not even sure that's legal. Probably, you need to get permission to use the photo. There are a few exceptions. "Fair use" generally means you can copy borrowed material "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research" without infringing on copyright, according to Title 17 of the U.S. Code. But I doubt using a recent photograph to supplement your blog entry, without comment on said picture, fulfills the standards of Fair Use.

There are also a lot of images out there that are now in "public domain." These images could be in the public domain for any number of reasons (usually they're just old), but once they're in the public domain, they're yours to use.

But I'm no copyright lawyer (maybe someday). There are other sources you can use to learn more:

The University of Maryland University College provides data on fair use and copyright.

Here's information from the U.S. Copyright Office (probably a reliable source on copyright) on Fair Use.

The U.S. Copyright Office also gives you the actual legislation.

Bitlaw deals directly with using images online.

So I join you in your moral outrage; members of the mainstream media should not use material from blogs without identifying their sources (though it's legitimate to ask at what point a story is just "out there" as "common knowledge" and no longer requires citation). But when you decide to get morally outraged, make sure you're not participating in a similar transgression.


  1. Come on ESPN that is such crap. IF you borrow from blogs, then you should credit them!

  2. You're definitely right about the letter of the law.

    However, morally/pragmatically speaking, I think the difference is intent. I believe bloggers are happy to properly attribute sources and even pictures. ESPN and others want to pretend everything they produce is original and REFUSE to attribute credit.

    One thing about the pictures, the various blogger platforms haven't really installed mechanisms to allow you to credit pictures (although it is easy for you to use them). Also, you can't hotlink pictures because that would steal bandwith, which is also bad. I would be happy to caption or otherwise credit pictures, but it is not practical.

    Also, bloggers generally only want credit, whereas many corporations want only money. Whose to say what's more valuable. Also, it would be nice if some of the photo agencies had license arrangements for the blogs. Even if requested a license, they don't care about my handful of page views. But if they had a reasonable license, I don't know that it wouldn't be embraced.

    Those are all excuses/concerns, but, again, you are right about the law.

  3. I know at this point I'm commenting on yesterday's news, but as a soon to be lawyer who has a reasonable amount of experience in IP I thought I could chime in a little bit.

    The use of unaltered photos without permission is definitely a copyright violation. This is true even if you credit the source.

    An easy, if not exact, comparison can be made to Napster. When you downloaded a song from Napster you were committing a copyright violation. But so was the person who uploaded the song in the first place. This is true even though they told you it was a song by Metallica. It would still be true even if no one downloaded that particular song. When you post a photo you are essentially the guy uploading the song.

    Fair use is a weird and goofy concept and the exception is generally pretty narrow. You are safest if your post is commenting on the borrowed material. For example: you run a blog about photography you post an AP photo and talk about its composition and lighting choices and stuff. That is way more likely to be ok than you using an AP photo of the Saints game in a post where you happen to talk about the Saints. Another thing that could keep you safe is if you do significant alterations to the photos like YAY Sports often does.

    I don't know of a specific test case regarding blogs and photos, but if you plan on relying on fair use, plan on going to court. Because a judge can only find fair use after examining the evidence.

    Sorry for this long and largely boring comment. People like me love to talk.