Teens’ photo feed is a viral hit – and a copyright conundrum

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.