Science Communication and the Art of Not Stealing
I love art. In my free time, I enjoy visiting galleries and museums; in my professional life, I occasionally work with artists and designers on various communication projects. For these and other reasons, I know that art has value.
And I’m not talking about some ethereal sense of moral, spiritual, or aesthetic value. I’m talking about dollars and cents. Art is, after all, a product. It is produced by the labor of artists. It is bought and sold – which means it can also be stolen.
Stealing is wrong. We all know that, right?
If I got caught stealing a car I’d go to jail.
If I stole a scientist’s data and published it myself, for my own personal gain, that scientist would be angry – and if I got caught, I would face very real consequences.
But for some reason, this doesn’t happen when people steal images. Especially science images. Instead of raising hell that someone’s work has been stolen, people say things like: “It’s great that they’re trying to get people excited about science!”
You know what? I love the idea of getting people excited about science. But it’s not a zero-sum game. You can do both of these things: get people excited about science AND not steal from anyone.
Let’s frame it this way: How would you respond if I stole your credit card number and used it to purchase a magazine advertisement about science? I’m guessing you wouldn’t say: “I can’t really afford to have you steal from me, but it’s okay because it will get people excited about science.”
(Note: If you think that swiping an image and stealing someone’s credit card number aren’t the same thing, you are incorrect. Both are acts in which one person’s property is taken without permission. “But it’s not stealing,” some of you will say. “It’s copyright infringement.” You’re arguing semantics, and infringement is still both morally and legally wrong. The fact is that infringement hurts professional artists. Like the guy who lost a $250,000 contract because someone had used his art to make t-shirts – without the artist’s permission.)
I see stolen, unattributed images all the time. And, frankly, it’s really making me angry. I know many of these artists. They have bills to pay and kids to feed. If someone impaired my ability to feed my family, I’d be furious. Seeing this happen to them makes me furious on their behalf. So I decided to write about some ways that you can help make a difference – and how you can find and use images without hurting anyone.
Why Not Sue?
I know what you’re thinking. Why don’t artists copyright their work and sue the pants off these folks? There are at least two reasons I can think of. First, it can sometimes be hard to tell who the thieves are.
For example, there seem to be a gazillion Twitter feeds with names like “Gorgeous Planet” or “Amazing Photos” (I’m making those up because I refuse to drive traffic to the real feeds.) They apparently exist solely to share unattributed photos. They make money by building up followers and then selling tweets to companies – which also breaks Twitter’s rules if the arrangement doesn’t go through them. (Follow @PicPedant to get an idea of how the system works.)
Regardless of how these Twitter feeds are gaming the system, the artists whose work is being shared sure aren’t getting anything. But how can you tell who actually runs those feeds? It’s often difficult to tell. And it’s tough to sue someone if you don’t know their name.
The second problem is an even bigger deal: money.
Photographer Alex Wild wrote about this late last year, and the numbers were daunting. In order to take legal action on copyright infringement, assuming there’s less than $1 million at stake, you’d better be prepared to pay more than a third of a million dollars. Most artists can’t afford that. (Heck, very few people can afford that.)
Being a Good Consumer
You can do a couple things to address the issue of image theft (or infringement): be a good consumer of information and a good producer of information. We’ll start with the consumer part.
If you see a website, Twitter feed, Facebook page, etc., that is sharing unattributed art, don’t support it. For example, don’t retweet that gorgeous photo of a bioluminescent octopus, unless the artist is noted.
I’ll often go one step further, and ask a website or social media user to provide image attribution. Sometimes it actually works. The user wasn’t trying to steal, they just hadn’t thought about it, or didn’t know the rules. (Full disclosure: I was clueless about all this when I started online).
And sometimes the user will say that he doesn’t know where the image came from. In those cases, I’ll often use Google’s search-by-image function to “reverse search” an image. (Google offers a concise primer, and it’s extremely easy to use.) Most of the time you can find the artist pretty quickly. (I just tested it again this morning, and found the relevant artist’s name in about six seconds.) I then give the artist’s name to the user and ask them to share it. They usually don’t. I then call the user a jerk and move on. (Update: since I put this post up, someone told me about another reverse search site for images called TinEye.com. I experimented with it, and it seems to work very well.)
The point is, being a good consumer means not encouraging or rewarding bad behavior – and being willing to call people out on it.
How to Not Steal
I make precisely zero dollars for writing this blog. I am a public employee and I have three kids. I have absolutely no personal budget for buying art to use on this blog, yet I use art on this blog. I also don’t steal from people. How do I do that? Let’s talk about how to find and use images without hurting anyone.
One obvious way is to ask an artist. To quote Alex Wild: “Artists own their copyrights, but that doesn’t mean many aren’t happy to share. Often, permission for non-commercial or personal blog use costs a mere link back to the artist’s website.”
There are also a rather staggering number of websites that allow you to use images as long as you follow their rules (which aren’t particularly onerous – they usually just want you to include the name of the artist and/or link to a page or site about the artist). Many of these images are made available using Creative Commons. If you don't know what Creative Commons means, or what the different types of Creative Commons licenses are, read the descriptions on the Creative Commons site. They're pretty clear – and very useful.
Here is an alphabetical list of some sites that may be worth exploring (be sure to pay attention to the requirements associated with each site and each artist’s images):
Ultimately, I'm hoping that those of us who use images (for social media, blogging, etc.) will simply try to do the right thing – even if it takes a little more effort.