© Anneke Joris
Blake Andrew's post about the unauthorized proliferation of Melanie Einzig's photograph of a man knitting on the subway highlights an all too familiar tension between content producers and content sharers in the age of social networks. The reality is that if you live and work as an artist on the web you are choosing to both exist in a constant grey area between copyright law and Fair Use and participate in a vast frontier of wobbly ethics that vacillate depending on the network, community or individual. Einzig's desire to maintain full control over the use of her images is admirable, as is Blake's call to the blogosphere to help remove all unauthorized uses of the photograph in question, but it does seem a bit like spitting into the social wind.
Don't get me wrong, I fully support the proper attribution of images and have done so on my blog since day one. In the age of Google Image Search, there is absolutely no excuse for not crediting an artist. But, I'm also a realist and long ago I fully embraced the idea that my images will travel and that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it's mostly a very good thing. If someone is moved to share my work or inspired to use it to create something new, that's kind of cool. I know the free flow of my images has certainly helped my career and I often tell my students to swim with the current and make their work as shareable as possible.
I have found my images in every nook of the Internet, mostly attributed and not altered in any way, but often unattributed, remixed, appropriated as paintings or drawings and cropped in ways that offend me to no end. Every time I come across my work presented like this, I cringe a little, but most of the efforts are benign and nobody is profiting off my intellectual property. When someone is profiting, I shut that shit down.
I understand the photographer's desire to manage use of her images online, but that became damn near impossible once the web evolved from a destination medium to a networked medium. You can't stop the flow of information. You basically have two options: don't post your work online or do so with the knowledge that interesting images will inspire people to share and alter them in ways both good and bad.
I believe it's important for the arts community to lead by ethical example on this issue, so to that end I solute Blake's efforts. However, in the spirit of not clogging the flow and respecting the talents and value of artists, I propose a slight modification to Blake's call to activism. Instead of stripping the images from the web, let's reach out to the offending posters and ask them to credit Melanie Einzig as well as any and all works they include on their sites in the future. Let's create a kind of attribution Neighborhood Watch where we confront site owners, editors and publishers that post images without crediting the artist and kindly ask them to get with the program. If we all have each others back on this our little photo community may be able to bring attention to the work of otherwise nameless artists and bring some ethical order to the wild frontier of the social web.