Proudhon and the Social Media

Barely had I blogged at (ISC)2 about the Proudhonist contention that “(Intellectual) Property is Theft” than I came upon an article by Andrew Orlowski for The Register in which he uses a similar tag line (“Property is theft, man. So we're taking yours”). While both articles are concerned with breaches of copyright and IP abuse, it was, I guess, inevitable that I’d spend some time whining about the damage to my pocket from pirated electronic copies of most of my books.

Actually, I tend to assume that if someone is going to grab a pirated copy, they were never going to buy the real thing anyway, so I’m not as obsessive about it as you might think. But I do find it incomprehensible and exasperating that so many people feel that I (or my publishers) shouldn’t expect any financial return from the expenditure of my creative energy (such as it is) and the many and various costs involved in the publishing process. (This is only one of the many gripes I have about the popular perception of the writing process, but I'll save the others for a more suitable time and venue…)

Orlowski’s article is focused on a slightly different aspect of the problem. I'm not really a visual thinker, as you might deduce from the fact that I rarely use graphics in a blog or paper, and in fact "Viruses Revealed" is notable for being 684 pages long and not containing a single illustration (not even photographs of the authors). (The book credits two illustrators, but I suppose they did the cover.) 

However, as a keen and occasionally published photographer, I have every sympathy with photographers who feel that organizations that presumably regard themselves as legitimate and honest rather than hotbeds of anarchy (say the Daily Mail or the BBC) should not simply swipe photographs from Twitter (or Flickr, or Facebook, or any of dozens of social networking sites that allow or encourage their users to post their work) without credit or, if appropriate, payment.

Orlowski makes several excellent points that dovetail nicely with some of mine. In the age of Web 2.0 (or whatever version we're up to now) we are all creators of content. Not everyone expects to make money out of (all) their work (I regard myself as a professional writer, but I do a lot of writing from which I derive no income at all), but they that doesn't mean that their rights as a creator don't need to be respected.

"Work for hire" where the writer's work belongs to an employer or customer is rather different, but the principle is the same. The writer can agree to assign copyright to someone else by contract, or put it in the public domain, but he or she is making a decision: the right to decide hasn't been stolen from them.

David Harley CITP FBCS CISSP
ESET Senior Research Fellow

Author David Harley, ESET

  • Harry Johnston

    I've always been doubtful about the application of copyright law to photography.  Are ordinary point-and-click photographs, particularly those taken in public places, really artistic works in the traditional sense?  (Of course the law is clear in this matter; I'm discussing what the law should be, not what it is.)
    Artistic photography, where considerable effort must be put into preparation, is clearly well within the proper domain of copyright.  But a snapshot taken in a few seconds in a public place?  I'm doubtful that copyright protection is in the public interest in this case.

    • David Harley

      I think we’d be in a sorry position if the courts became the arbiters of aesthetic value. Though aesthetic value isn’t really the point: a picture could be valuable to a news organization simply because it was unique and/or topical. It doesn’t matter. It may or may not be “good” in your eyes, but it’s someone else’s work, and if it’s worth using it, it’s worth acknowledging and (if appropriate) paying for.

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