Lessons from a life of startups, coding, countryside, and kids
Many moons ago, I used to hang out on The Business of Software forum and one question kept coming up again and again: “How can I stop pirates stealing my software?”. Software has a long history of using licence codes, dongles, licensing servers, online registration, phoning-home activation, obfuscation and many other security techniques to ensure only those people who had paid for the software could actually use it. There’s an entire industry built up to soothe the fears of software authors and protect their applications from pirates. Likewise, there’s an underground industry methodically and efficiently defeating those security methods. It’s an ever-escalating war and the pirates will always be ahead (it’s a conflict fundamentally skewed towards the pirates who can make “class breaks” in security technologies).
But the responses that the worried software authors received were typically not what you’d expect. They were generally much more pragmatic in nature:
Are professional photographers worrying about theoretical threats from IP infringements instead of focusing on providing real value to their true customers? Are they inconveniencing and disrespecting their genuine market? Are they confusing pirates with their real market (and vice versa)? I’d say yes, on all three counts.
The current furore is about Pinterest, which is a social networking site that allows users to compile visual bookmarks of their favourite things. It does this by clipping an image from the bookmarked page to which the user can add a comment. When the user (or one of their friends) clicks-through, they will get to the original page. Some photographers are going absolutely ballistic that Pinterest is storing a copy of their photos. Sorry, let me rephrase that so you can understand the absurdity of it:
Some photographers are going batshit-crazy because their fans want to favourite their images and share them with friends.This is the point where technical transgressions of copyright laws need to be ignored in the name of pragmatic business decisions.
Why would you discourage your most ardent fans? I’m not a big user of Pinterest but I could see myself using it to “pin” my favourite images which I’d look back through for inspiration on techniques or location. A bride searching for a wedding photographer might “pin” numerous photos while she works out which one she’d like to shoot her wedding. And she’s sharing those images with her friends, and it all links back to your site. What’s not to love about that? Pinterest now lets you add a meta tag to your site to prevent users from pinning images on your site. I hope you have a really really good business reason for implementing that.
Your fans probably aren’t your customers anyway (but they might become one). I enjoy taking landscape photos myself so I also spend a lot of time looking at theÂ work of others for enlightenment, inspiration, motivation and just to practice “reading” photographs. Consequently, I could see myself pinning (or infringing!) lots of photos but a landscape photographer will have a tough time selling me one of his prints (I have enough of my own). But, offer me workshops/ebooks/seminars? Now you’re talking! I think it’s very important to define your products and your customers and focus on them. Relax your grip on the big red IP infringement button and start focusing on delighting your genuine customers.
Where is the lost revenue to the photographer? Having said all that, there are times when it makes business sense to prevent copyright theft and to chase after infringements. If a company has used your image without permission in an advert? That’s lost revenue. Invoice them and start up the lawyers! If a kid has reposted your image on Tumblr? That’s not lost revenue, even if he has advertising on the site. Stand down the lawyers. Send him an email or comment thanking him for his enthusiasm and asking that he credits you and links to your sales/gallery page. That’s a smart business decision. The photographer should be in the business of photography, not strict IP enforcement. Found another photographer passing off your images as his own? I expect you to fire off a cease-and-desist to the bastard, and his service provider, and starting warming up those lawyers again!
If there’s one thing I wish could make photographers understand, it’s this: Copying happens. There is no if’s, but’s or maybe’s. It happens. And it will always happen. To prevent copying is to completely change the nature of the Internet and you really really don’t want that. The Internet presents photographers with much greater opportunities than it takes away. So, there are really just two options: accept that what you put on the Internet will be copied (usually without malice); or you can take all your images offline. The latter path is a sure-fire way to a change of career. A sensible precaution is not to put full-res images online (but be sensible and don’t feed your fans minuscule thumbnails).
Watermarking is another popular way to mitigate against copying. A small signature, name or web address placed discretely in the edge of the frame (or, ideally, on a border) lets anyone who sees a copied image know exactly where it came from. It’s advertising and it makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, like the escalation in software licensing, some photographers fear that their subtle watermark could be cropped out and so engage in bizarre behaviour: after spending considerable time and mental energy composing and processing their photos to perfection, they emblazon a giant distracting watermark across the middle of the image or an eye-bleeding repeating texture across the whole thing.
I really hope they objectively considered the business impact of ugly-fying their work like that.In short, I want professional photographers to survive by focusing on their business instead of fretting away time, money and energy on to-the-letter-of-the-law IP enforcement.