Copy...right?: Over-Sharing in the Information Age

I want to share something with you.

Recently I was contacted by a large corporation with whom I had no prior business, who demanded I pay them a large settlement figure for something I wasn't aware I had done. I undid the thing, asserted my ignorance, explained that no profit had been sought (much less made) as a result of the transgression, and apologized. I apologized a lot.

And then I paid.

This next part is just a guess: In July of 2010 I was sat at a computer terminal, contemplating this and that, when I decided to write a quick 'blog post about a nomination I received from a play festival for "best supporting actor." As was my custom at the time, I searched for an image that would speak to the content of the post in some way. Every post I wrote displayed a (quasi-)relevant image at its start. This one needed something pretty straightforward, something that said, "Award."

A trophy.

The corporation with whom I spent the better part of a week in regular email correspondence shall go unnamed, to protect the innocent. Oh, they're not "the innocent." They are far too well-informed for that. I mean me. I am now protecting me.

No, I'll not name them. I would not give them the benefit of the advertisement. And, I assure you, it's not because I half-conceive of their jack-booted thugs knocking down my door with a libel suit; no.

What I WILL say though, is...

Ye get stigma when ye emit gags, yet  one can't help but gag over this kind of surprise. Sure, my 'blog is set up to get me gigs, yet tame gigs are mostly what I've booked. My gig estate, as it were, remains to date nascent, unhatched, egg-like. 'Tis meaty egg, I like to think, not to mention hot, steamy egg. It just got a little too hot with this little development, such that I needed to handle it with kid gloves. Aye: Egg Mitts. In fact, I set my egg at the safest location I could imagine - in compliance with all their demands. It gets my age accelerated, this payment under threat, but...what else could I do? Get a gym site? Get gays time? Tee gym gaits? Stem Yeti gag?

...and trust that has not given away - in any respect - what major corporation intruded on my life the other week.

I'm willing to heed the suggestion that it was I who intruded upon them on that fateful day in 2010, mind you. My friends with whom I've discussed this little adventure have all been very kind (especially when you consider that most of them are or have been at one time artists) and offered me various defenses and justifications for my supposed actions, most of which I believe they believe in. It's very comforting. It's also utterly in refutation of what is a very clearly stated law.

Here's a paraphrasing of the critical bit of copyright law as it applies to images: It is up to whomever uses the image in question to be aware of and act in accordance with that image's licenses for use. That is, ignorance of the rights for usage of a particular image is irrelevant to one's misuse - you are breaking the law, whether you know it, or no.

Not that I can claim complete ignorance of copyright law and artists' rights insofar as our governing bodies have elected to uphold them, even going back so far as 2006, when I started Odin's Aviary. I am, after all, an actor. Licensing my own image is an interesting bit of legal trickery that can't really be enforced effectively until I have attained a certain level of success. And even then, it's a little bit of the Wild West out there. I refer, of course, to the Internet.

At one time, "using" a licensed image fell into one of two camps: cutting it out of a magazine for use in a collage or diorama or somesuch, or pulling off an elaborate heist or abuse of a photo-negative archive. Technically we aren't allowed to photocopy them from out of books, either, but - come on. Actually, that's a technological gray area that may have led us to where we are today. For on the beleaguered Internet, it is even cheaper and easier to "copy" an image, and that copy is a spitting image of the ... er ... image.

This difference is exemplified nowhere quite so keenly as in the "personal use" licensing policies of image rights holders such as the AP, or Reuters. These companies have pricing structures for different types of use, and at no point does "personal use" licensing overlap web use. (In fact, some unnamed corporations don't even list their personal-use license pricing on their website.) This is because the definition of personal use is very narrow in this particular context. It means a print, that you hang on your wall. Presumably safely away from any windows, or doors that open into public settings..

The Internet, you see, is never personal. It is public. When you share something on the Internet, you're sharing it with the biggest audience there is.

Sharing is my favorite part of the Internet. I can't be oblivious to the implications of this medium, because I love an audience, and access to such a large one is a powerful thing. The corporation in question was well within its rights to demand I not use the image, and were I in their shoes I would probably seek some kind of compensation for my use of it. Heck, I even agree that a no-tolerance policy is necessary for such businesses (not to mention the artist) these days. All the sharing has led to such a permissive atmosphere, to so much ignorance and confusion about rights that a bit of backlash is inevitable and probably better sets the balance.


But the law is broken. The law is broken when it better serves a corporation with a net worth of about $3.3 billion that doesn't actually create anything than it does a private citizen who tripped over it when s/he wasn't even trying to create a profit. The law is broken when it fails to consider the Internet as an entirely new mode of communication, one meriting its own rules and considerations; not to mention enforcement. The law is broken, and it's being abused. Not just by millions of uninformed private individuals, but by billion-dollar industries with astonishing resources and culpability.

I'm not just bitter. (I am. Bitter. Just not "just.") When you set out the rules and my supposed actions, it's hard to stand on one side and proclaim injustice. The rules are fairly clear. They're just not apt to the new conditions and culture. Consider the details that led me to decide I could not ignore or bargain down the corporation. Their approach is very well documented. That being:

  1. Send notice of a cease-and-desist that includes an excessive settlement demand.
    (The judgment of "excessive" is somewhat subjective. But then again, so are the rates they charge for a licensed image, on which this settlement figure is supposedly based.)
  2. If the recipient complies with the cease-and-desist, offer a reduction of the demand amount.
  3. Issue the reduction with a deadline for payment.
  4. Threaten to forward the case to a collection agency if the deadline is not met.
  5. Threaten legal action, above all.

Five is hogwash, at least in this case. But 4 ... well. Four is what turned the trick for me. Because what a new dad aiming for ever-increasing fiscal solvency cannot afford, cannot risk, is his credit rating.

I can share some small, good news: These rights issues go both ways, and not all courts are siding with the corporations. Oh, and by the way: I guarantee you've broken copyright law using the Internet. Did you know it's illegal under the current law to forward an email someone else composed if you don't have their permission?