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Summary:

Images are everywhere on the internet these days and some see them as a shortcut to viral fame. The case of wildly popular @HistoryInPics raises familiar questions about how to draw lines over attribution and ownership.

Spanish fighter
photo: Hans Gutman

A popular Twitter account run by two teenagers publishes historical photos of everything from mall rats to John Lennon sniffing Coke. The feed is delighting a million people but also raises familiar questions of how, in an age of ubiquitous images, to define artistic ownership and attribution: a solution may lie in a fresh approach to calculating copyright.

In case you’re unfamiliar, the Twitter account is called @HistoryInPics, and was the subject of a though-provoking article last week by Alex Madrigal. He explained how a 17-year-old from Australia and a 19-year-old from Hawaii attracted a swarm of followers to the account, including celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Jack Dorsey, in just six months with photos such as Marilyn Monroe’s military ID:

Marilyn Monroe

And this old Russian couple who have reportedly been married for 65 years:

Russian couple

The photos in the Twitter stream are a clever summary of culture and history but that’s not all they are. Some of them are clearly covered by copyright and, as Madrigal notes, @HistoryInPics doesn’t seem too concerned about ownership, or even attribution for that matter.

“The majority of the images are public domain haha,”one of the teens told Madrigal. Haha, indeed; except for the fact that most of the pictures on @HistoryInPics are clearly not in the public domain. This, in turn, raises the question of what — if anything — should be done about outfits like @HistoryInPics, and the many others like it that help themselves to images first and worry about copyright later.

The question matters because @HistoryInPics’ loosey-goosey outlook is not just a philosophy, but an established business model. Mainstream sites like YouTube, Pinterest and BuzzFeed all got early traction in part because of a cavalier approach to copyright. And, in the case of the two teens behind the Twitter stream, this isn’t their first rodeo — as Madrigal explains, they’re already experienced at developing viral content channels and selling them of for money. No doubt they’ll do the same with @HistoryInPics.

Time for a new approach to copyright

Stories like the one about @HistoryInPics typically drive photographers and copyright hardliners berserk, and not without reason. Most people agree that protecting artists’ rights is justified, and that more should be done to stop the wholesale expropriation of others’ images.

Unfortunately, the usual cure proposed by critics of BuzzFeed and other new media sites is worse than the disease: full-enforcement of America’s draconian copyright laws, which provide penalties of up to $150,000 per work and grant absurd terms of protection that last well over a century. If such measures were enforced everywhere all the time, it’s doubtful we would have YouTube or Pinterest or Instagram or many of the other digital services that make the internet such a rich cultural forum.

In the real world, to the degree that the copyright laws are enforced, it’s often in horribly unfair ways: sample trolls who file ludicrous lawsuits against hip-hop artists or copyright trolls who shake down small bloggers that don’t have the money or sophistication to fight back (there’s also evidence that Getty Images has a hand in such trolling). Such practices hurt the overall credibility of copyright while also doing little to support photographers and other artists.

As I’ve argued in the past, copyright law is broken and the debate over how to fix it is dominated by extremists: those who support Hollywood hardliners on one hand, and those who defend the likes of Kim Dotcom on the other. The way forward lies somewhere in the middle and, if lawmakers can find it, they could create a system that provides more money and respect for creators while also ensuring that the next generation of BuzzFeeds or YouTubes can flourish.

The contours of such a system are open to debate, but the best place to start is with shorter copyright terms. In early America, creators were able to protect their works for a 14 year term that could be renewed one time. Such a limit sounds about right for today when art is created, distributed and forgotten faster than ever before. Shorter terms might also make it easier for artists to persuade internet users to pay them in the first place.

This article was updated at 10:10am ET with the following corrections: a photo shows John Lennon “sniffing Coke” not snorting cocaine, and that a c0-founder of @historyinpics is 17 not 15.

  1. As a Professional Artist/Designer/Photographer with a large archive of ‘historic’ imagery and works in major domestic museums I find the threat, disrespect and disregard of my Intellectual Property(ies) by individuals like this to be ‘FU’ (in simple Layman’s Terms’ we can put this in Legalese also)!!!!!!!! None of these people experienced the ‘blood, sweat or tears’ that was required or expended (or even being in the ‘ … Right Place at the Right Time’) to give them the RIGHT(S) to distribute someone else’s energy or Life’s Work WITHOUT THEIR PERMISSION much less offering or providing COMPENSATION. In my opinion this is patently WRONG and without merit!!!

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    1. The modern day version of ‘have you seen this photo? it’s pretty neat!’ is patently wrong and without merit? Take that culture…

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    2. Christ, you sound deranged.

      So the promise of “work once; get paid forever” hasn’t worked out for you? My heart bleeds.

      You have precisely zero moral right to any kind of copy-monopoly. Charging monopoly rents on information is sclerotic to culture and innovation, and is unenforceable without creating the machinery required for police-statehood.

      In a nutshell, copy-monopolies are incompatible with any free society that has an internet… and for what? So greedy, self-entitled people such as yourself can work once and get paid forever?

      Oh yea – I’m a musician, artist, writer, film-maker etc etc – the musician part being full-time for 15 years.

      The people putting this photo-feed together are contributing to the cultural-cache – at most, their role is as curators. Anyone who tries to stop them because “oooh, that’s my information”, deserves to be bulldozed into the sea.

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      1. So sorry, but I think you’re wrong. You have no moral rights to his hard work. Ever. Period.

        Why is it wrong to work once and get paid forever? That’s the deal given every other type of worker. A carpenter who builds a house can rent it forever– or sell the rights to control it forever in one lump sum. An auto worker who builds a car can sell the rights to control the car forever. Everyone except the artists you hate.

        And quit calling it a “monopoly”. If you want to take your photos, you can take as many as you want. If you want to work in the photo business, you’re welcome to enter it. You’re only prevented from stealing his work.

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        1. Those are really poor analogies.

          Autoworkers are paid by the automobile corporation to provide labour. They have no ownership stake in the car they produce unless, perhaps, they are shareholders. The other analogy is equally flawed. I’m not splitting hairs here, it’s just that if the ownership norms you describe are so natural and self-evident, why do your analogies do such a poor job of articulating them?

          You are conflating rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods. The former are material goods that can only exact in one place at a time – cars, refrigerators, houses – while the latter, when copied do not deprive the owner of their use of them – a copy of a CD, a photograph, an ebook, etc.

          You are implying that circulating a low-resolution, digital reproduction of a photograph is equivalent to breaking into the photographer’s home and stealing her photography equipment. Does that really make sense to you? Have these “curators” claimed ownership of the work and licensed it to anyone? Is the photographer no longer able to license the photograph to a magazine, or sell an original print to someone?

          Copying non-rivalrous goods and sharing knowledge were, and remain a cultural norm that predates intellectual property law by millennia. Language, tool-making, technologies, agricultural techniques, folktales, myths, spiritual ideas, health remedies, and countless other essential aspects of what it means to be human were shared and circulated without the need for intellectual property regimes.

          You can argue that copying non-rivalrous goods is immoral, that’s fine, but at least recognize that they are not the same thing.

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          1. Oh you’re so lost. Of course it’s just like autoworkers. Don’t you know that the UAW is probably the biggest shareholder in the carmakers. They may own more than 55% of Chrysler.

            Are they artists? You bet. Yet they get the permanent rights to their work.

            And since when are cars or houses that much different from digital works? In both cases, the design and engineering costs are a huge part of the final price. The reproduction labor is a bit higher than making a digital copy, but the design intelligence is a big part of both. In the case of cars, the raw materials are a small fraction of the total price. They’re really not as different as you copyright deniers like to believe.

            And you can blather on about the millenia before copyright, but they sucked. The church was the only institution able to maintain any distribution network and they only distributed the books to the members. Those wandering minstrels that borrowed and remixed each other’s work? They often died or took real jobs pretty quickly.

            If you don’t like copyright or patents, why don’t you move to Somalia? There’s no rule of law there. By your arguments, there should be a veritable explosion in artistic creativity because the people aren’t kept down by Disney and the Man. Hah. The place is a creative desert. Oh sure, there are a few artists who manage to survive but there’s a reason why the artists are fleeing and heading to countries that value their work– and give them lasting rights in it.

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  2. I don’t see this as a copyright issue at all. To those who want to distribute content, I say: 1) Secure the rights to that content legally; and, if that’s too difficult, 2) Create your own content.
    It’s that simple.

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    1. I know right? I mean if you can’t afford the entry fee to participate in culture then fuck you, you don’t deserve to participate in culture.

      Access to culture is a moral right. It’s that simple.

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      1. Can you name another private industry where people’s work product can be involuntarily taken from them and distributed to the public without compensation? Transportation is at least as important to sustaining life as entertainment, but no one would suggest that a car thief shouldn’t be prosecuted simply because he really needed a way to get to the supermarket. The public’s insatiable appetite for content does not justify the uncompensated taking of private property.

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      2. Boy you’re a moron. There’s no entry fee to participate in culture. You want to make your own art, go right ahead. There’s no fee to pick up a guitar.

        But the file sharing leeches think that plagiarism is “participating in culture.” They think that the only way to participate in culture is to copy someone else’s work.

        Sheeesh. Get a guitar and learn how to play. Pay your dues. Once you spend the hours developing a talent you’ll understand why the artists are so cheesed off that you think that copying is participating.

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      3. Boy you’re a lazy, no-good leech. It costs nothing to make your own art. You want to create music, go pick up a guitar. There’s no entry fee at all.

        But you seem to think that copying someone else’s work is “participating in culture.” Really? It’s called plagiarism where I went to school and there’s no moral right to plagiarism.

        Why don’t you get a guitar and learn how to play? Once you do, you’ll learn why artists hate infringers who somehow think they’re doing something moral and right.

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  3. Boy what a great example of what this article pointed out: that copyright discussion quickly descends into a shouting match between hardliners. None of you commented on the suggestion to start fixing copyright law in the U.S. by simply shortening the term back to what original law provided for. Personally, I think that would go a long way toward making it work better.

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    1. Not sure I agree. Early U.S. copyright law provided a relatively short duration of protection. Under those laws works could fall into the public domain well in advance of the author’s death. I’d be peeved if people were allowed to exploit my work for profit while I was still alive.

      What tetracycloide, nicktaylor111 and others seem to be suggesting is that all creative work should instantly and automatically be considered “culture,” thereby entitling anyone and everyone to immediately use, possess, sell and otherwise exploit it for public and/or private gain without providing any compensation to the creator. That’s what the article says the proprietors of @HisotryInPics may very well intend to do. Do you not have a problem with that? Answer carefully, lest you start to sound like a “hardliner.”

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