News Events, Tweeted Photos & The Permissions Mess

Have you tweeted a great photograph that’s gone viral, such as today’s Space Shuttle launch as seen from a commercial airline flight? Getting credit for that, much less getting paid for it, seems to be a mess.

It’s been on my to do list to write about this issue for several weeks. It came up on the Read 2.0 mailing list that I’m part of back in March, about who has the right to grant permission when a photo is tweeted through one of the many sharing services out there.

I may come back and do a more formal look with interviews with the sharing services and Twitter down the line. But given today’s Space Shuttle shot (the awesome picture on the right) and photographer Stefanie Gordon having tweeted about ABC News using it without credit, I thought I’d pull together some of what I posted earlier to the Read 2.0 list and expand a bit.

The Haiti Photos

You might recall hearing about how professional photographer Daniel Morel took pictures from Haiti after the earthquake, tweeted them, then found that AFP (a news wire service) claimed rights to the photos and sold them to others.

What happened, to my understanding, is that after the pictures were tweeted, another person apparently copied them, then AFP copied the copies and put them out on its wire service without permission of either the photographer or the person who copied them. The images, in turn, ended up with Getty for others to license.

The case went to court and still seems to be on going, last I looked. Among other things, AFP seems to have argued when the photographer uploading the photos to the internet via Twitter, various license agreements with Twitter gave the AFP the right to use the images. Twitter, to my understanding, has disagreed with this.

For more about the case, I recommend these two articles:

Who Has Charlie Sheen’s Permission?

I think most reasonable people would find it kind of insane that the AFP might think it could just take a picture that was posted online and license it out as its own. And yet, I bring you Charlie Sheen:

That’s a rather iconic photo that Sheen put out soon after he started tweeting. It currently has nearly 2 million views. Have I violated any rights by reproducing it above? Who knows?

When the picture first went up, it was arguably news itself, and perhaps fair game to reproduce as an online news event. Certainly plenty of news sites out there used this photo, I recall. I doubt many got explicit permission. Nor do I suspect Sheen’s top priority was getting back to the requests he did receive.

As for the picture itself, there’s nothing that gives guidance about how it can be used. There’s no “don’t use this” or “use with a link back” nor a Creative Commons license. Nothing.

Given that Sheen published this to the world, it’s reasonable to assume he’d want many people to see it. I’d be surprised if he objected to individual news sites putting it on their sites. He might not mind a wire service distributing it. But someone taking it and selling the rights to it? I suspect that Sheen wouldn’t find that to be “winning” at all.

Twitpic Claims The Right?

If you go way down to the bottom of the page, where the picture is hosted at the Twitpic service, there’s an “All Rights Reserved” notice. That’s so far removed from the photo that there’s an argument that Twitpic reserves the rights to the hosting page itself but not necessarily to the photo on it. But what if Twitpic does claim rights to the image?

Actually, it does — some. But Twitpic posted recently to clarify that it wasn’t trying to take ownership of photos. From the Twitpic post:

You the user retain all copyrights to your photos and videos, it’s your content. Our terms state by uploading content to Twitpic you allow us to distribute that content on and our affiliated partners. This is standard among most user-generated content sites (including Twitter). If you delete a photo or video from Twitpic, that content is no longer viewable.

As we’ve grown, Twitpic has been a tool for the spread of breaking news and events. Since then we’ve seen this content being taken without permission and misused. We’ve partnered with organizations to help us combat this and to distribute newsworthy content in the appropriate manner. This has been done to protect your content from organizations who have in the past taken content without permission. As recently as last month, a Twitpic user uploaded newsworthy images of an incident on a plane, and many commercial entities took the image from Twitpic and used it without the user’s permission.

At first glance, this seems reasonable. You keep the rights to your photos. Certainly since that you never have to explicitly sign any terms to use Twitpic or some other sharing services like yFrog, that’s not just reasonable but common sense. Tweeting a picture using a client built into your phone, an app that doesn’t prompt you about rights, shouldn’t cause you to lose any rights.

For example, I signed into yFrog on the web for the first time today, apparently, because it welcomed me and asked me to agree to its terms as part of that. Yet, I’ve shared 557 photos to date through the service never having gone to the site nor having read or agreed to its terms, because various Twitter clients just automatically let me do that.

Despite Twitpic’s statement, there’s plenty that’s not clear. How exactly is Twitpic dealing with requests to use my images, should they come in? And do I get paid? Or is it only a sub-group of people? And is the “distribution” rights that Twitpic has claimed including distribution through services that might charge for my images?

Who knows?

In an article about the recent Twitpic terms change, which got attention on Techmeme, some celebrities will apparently be covered through an agreement between the WENN news network and Twitpic. Which ones? Will the pictures be flagged in some way? Again, it’s all unclear.

How About Some Guidance?

In fact, there’s nothing on Twitpic at all about the correct way to use images or how to deal with permissions. If you hit the help area, there’s no guidance. If you search for permissions information, you get zero answers:

Do a search for “permissions” or “copyright,” and it’s the same situation. Do a similar search at yFrog, and it’s the same. Anyone coming across these photos are left guessing about how to use them, how to contact people or what to do.

At least yFrog allows for picture embedding. In that case, a site can draw the image from the source site and technically not copy it. But this doesn’t help for offline publications. Nor as a user, can I turn this option off, if I want.

You might think that Flickr, a long-established photo sharing site, has a solution with its Creative Commons licensing approach. You’d be wrong.

Flickr’s Big Fail On Creative Common’s Attribution Guidelines is my post from two years ago about how even when a CC license is indicated, it’s still a nightmare to know exactly how to use those images. That’s still the case today, to my knowledge.

What’s really needed is a way for people to easily flag permissions information with their photos. Perhaps by default, all photos can be used online with a link back to the photo hosting site. But maybe people can alter this to allow for other options, such as paid use by news organizations, or to provide contact details or other permissions information.

Lessons From The Hudson Miracle Landing

Remember this image (used below, with permission) of the US Airways jet landing on the Hudson River in January 2009:

Incredible, right? I saw it everywhere, online and in print. I always wondered if the person who snapped it, Janis Krums, earned anything from it.

Krums wrote about what happened with the photo on his blog last year. He doesn’t say if he ever earned anything from the photo, but he does say that major media outlets used it without paying and without permission.

AP didn’t buy the rights but apparently used it, he wrote. CNN and Fox also did the same. But for whatever financial loss he suffered, Krums was pretty relaxed about it, saying:

When I took the photo my priority was rescuing the passengers of the plane and not selling the rights to one of the news organizations.

Even if he wasn’t worried about the passengers, when do you ever see tweeted pictures with copyright statements. No one does this. Heck, there’s not room in the tweets to insert such things.

Krums, by the way, offered Gordon some advice on her picture via Twitter:

@Stefmara Congrats, those are some great shots. Enjoy the twitter fame, it’s a lot of fun! Make sure you copyright the photos. ;-)

Actually, I’m pretty sure under US law (and in many other countries), Gordon already has copyright to the picture. Registering it just gives her more potential damages, should she file a copyright claim.

How Are Permissions Still Such A Mess?

It’s pretty sad that more than a year after making writing his post, this recommendation Krums has for photo sharing services doesn’t seem to have changed:

One thing that I would like to see is the protection of photos in services like TwitPic, YFrog, TweetPhoto, and others. If they implement some type of distribution avenue it could make sense in events of significance. News organization would know where to look for their info and the photographers would be compensated for their material.

Yes, that would be nice. I agree. I’d dearly like to see the picture sharing services get it together to allow those using them better options to indicate how a picture can be licensed or used. Otherwise, rights will just continue to get trampled on.

See Also:

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Features: Analysis | Search Engines: Photo & Image Search | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Michael Merritt

    Not sure there’s a technical solution. You could do metadata, but that’s easily removed. More likely there’ll need to be some kind of standard put in place, but by whom?

  • P.O.

    Why not to acquaint yourself with basics of author’s rights and copyright?
    There is no need to make any declaration which are, anyway, null if infringe copyright and/or author’s rights.

    There are universal internationally author’s rights (aka moral rights aka inalienable author rights)
    They cannot be transferred or denounced even by the wish/consent of the author, so any “Free for anybody to use” is illegal

    They do not require registering and appear by fact of publication/realization.
    They do not depend on merits and intentions

    While moral rights cannot be assigned, they can be waived. This means an author can choose not to exercise the right to be associated with the work, the right to preserve the integrity of the work, or the right to remain anonymous

    Moral rights always rest with the author of a work, as opposed to the owner of the work. Moral rights cannot be assigned to someone else like a copyright can

    Legally, one cannot copy or even reference other work without explicit author’s permission.
    Google is continuously trying to subvert the copyright law and author’s rights insisting that authors (owners, right holders) should chase who stole/copied their work and declare that they do not agree with theft. It is vice versa – users/publishers of content should seek permisssion

    Google lost a dozen of lawsuits on it which are mounting
    Search for “Google Book Settlement Rejected”, “Google infringes copyright by displaying and linking to news site content”
    Just make your search…

  • I.P.

    Can’t find any mention of “fair use”?

    If I wanted to blog about this story, for example, I might need a short extract, including one of the picture that you write about.

  • Keith Kmett

    Save yourself the headache and use the WordPress app to post pictures on your blog, then tweet about it. That way you can put your own disclaimer on the page and not have to worry about who owns what.

    Technically though, her images are owned by her unless express permission has been given.

  • zai87

    One rather simple way to at least let people know the photo is yours is by watermarking. Artists who post their work online have been doing it for quite some time. I’d like to see one of more of the picture services add them in upon uploading. Nothing too big but like the date and username of whomever uploaded the photo. News organizations might still take the photo, but editing out a watermark is hard and if they don’t getting restitution if one wants to could be much easier.

  • Michael Dorausch

    The SEO solution would be to self host, watermark, tag, and tweet but that’s not likely to happen for the ‘average’ citizen journalist photographer. I’m not surprised by the practice of news agencies at all, and I’ve lost trust with photo sharing services, but unless one has their own self hosted alternative (I now do) things get sticky.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Michael, an easy technical fix would be to add a “permissions” line to every Twitpic/yFrog etc photo where people could flag anything they want. Then if you have a picture go wild, you could flag that it can only be used with permission, where it can be licensed or how it should be credited. Right not, you’ve got no easy option. People might ignore, still, but it’s a start.

    PO, I am acquainted with the basic and in fact, said in the article that in the US and many other countries, you already have copyright just by being the author. Registration isn’t required.

    Legally, one can indeed copy and reference other works without permission, in the US and many other countries. Copyright doesn’t give someone sole control over a work. It gives them very specific reproduction rights. Fair use allows for some referencing and copying.

    As for Google, it actually has lost very few of these cases. The book search settlement rejection means that, in the case of Google Book Search, it has actually won that case — since it hasn’t been settled.

    IP, yes, you could use a short extract about the story under fair use. Likely citing a picture would be OK depending on how you did it, the size and so on. That’s one of the tricky areas, especially with pictures — there’s no way to easily “summarize” only part of them.

    Keith, if the app puts the pictures on your blog, it’s making a copy of them, and the images are then potentially infringing someone else’s rights.

    Zai87, watermarking is a fine way to alert that a picture has been lifted, but that’s not something that the photo sharing services have implemented.

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