Attribution Matters

Missionary DiplomacyThe imaginary band album cover game has come back up on Facebook, perhaps it never really went away. It’s a chance operation game where you,

  1. Find a bandname via the Wikipedia random article function. The article title is the bandname.
  2. Find an album title via The Quotations Page random quotations page. The last three to five words of the last quote on the page are the title.
  3. Find an album cover by using Flickr’s “explore the last seven days” link that selects recent content ranked by Flickr’s “interestingness” algorithm. Third picture, no matter what it is, will be your album cover.
  4. Combine the elements in an image editing program and share it with your friends.

I like random operation games very much and I started playing but something wasn’t right at step three for me. The problem was that Flickr includes all uploaded images in its interesting tag and this includes copyrighted images. This is just a light-hearted game but it is taking an image creating a derivative work and sharing it. Doing this with copyrighted images is not legal. This started me thinking about copyright both from the creator’s and the user’s perspective.

Torrent Lark It is very easy to grab images from sites like Flickr and use them in fun ways, but possibility does not create permission. I think that respecting the wishes of the creators of these images is important, not because I agree with the restriction of use imposed but, because change may happen by respecting them. The vast majority of the images shared on Flickr will never be used commercially. Their creators will not make a penny from them, but they should be able to accrue other benefits from their work. One of the the most valuable is exposure.

An image used in a game such as the imaginary band game could generate significant exposure for a photographer. An imaginary album cover shared through several networks of online friends can have significant exposure. Probably not thousands but certainly hundreds of people will see the image and who knows if Fortuna smiles on you and your image is part of a particularly interesting/funny/disturbing chance operation it could be seen by many thousands of people. This must be better than it sitting in its copyrighted ivory tower seen by only a few people.

The other side of the issue is that having an image grabbed from Flickr manipulated and shared with no attribution gives no benefit whatsoever to the creator. Attribution and back-links are important. In many ways they are the currency of Web 2.0. Many creative people are posting things and are competing for visibility in the firmament of the internet. Links and particularly attribution help to create visibility.

Fair use often gets used to create entitlement in this situation but there are many problems with this. Fair use is a principle of US copyright law (with variants in place in Canada, Israel and South Korea) that does me no good here in the UK. Fair use is decided on a case by case basis it is not a static code that can be applied in a scattergun fashion. In the specific case of the imaginary album game it does not apply in my opinion.
Yakovlev The largest problem for me with this approach to using the work of others is that it feels adversarial. One person is taking the work of another using it as they wish and then using US copyright law (or a mangled version of it) a a shield. A better way is to find mutual advantage for both the creator and user.

The principles of Creative Commons and GNU General Public Licenses go a long way towards addressing some of these concerns. Creative Commons has an advantage with it’s license menu to allow a creator to decide how a work can be shared. The most important aspect for me is attribution. Give credit to the creator. This creates a joint advantage. My imaginary album becoming more popular creates more publicity for the photographer who created the image.

Mutual advantage can even become the seed of community. We might not all get rich but at least we can share the glory (or even just the fun). In the best of all possible worlds an imaginary album might have some viral success putting the image in-front of someone with a commercial opportunity for the photographer.

A good way to create this change is to only use images with permission. Mike Lietz has created a page that fetches a random interesting image from Flickr. This is a wonderful tool for the game. It preserves the randomness and allows respecting the photographers wishes. You do need to click through to Flickr to get a useful resolution version of the image and to check the exact terms of the licence. The main thing to look out for is that the author allows derivative works. This means that it is OK to use the image to make your album cover.

By only sharing work posted under open licenses we can favour that method of posting and encourage others to do the same. Many people are fearful of being ripped off or having their work used in ways they don’t like. By respecting their wishes in terms of how work is shared and whether derivative works are allowed we can encourage an open online community and have fun without guilt. That’s got to be a good thing

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Ruben Kenig

I used to play punk, then jazz. Somehow I went to music school to study composition. I wrote music and made sound design for theatre and studied film music. In the interstitial spaces of this I made websites as a content manager and project manager. I sometimes publish articles at