On July 29, a photo of our cat Goober sitting in an Amazon.ca box, with an extra “t” added to spell “amazon.cat”, turned up on the popular Emergency Kittens Twitter account:
When I saw that photo, I had four thoughts occur simultaneously:
- Hey, that’s our cat.
- Hey, that’s my photo.
- Hey, that’s my joke.
- Hey, that’s my copyright.
The original photo was taken on August 19, 2010:
Emergency Kittens didn’t ask me for permission, they didn’t link back to the Flickr page from which it was taken, and they didn’t give me a photographer’s credit. The photo had a Creative Commons licence that required giving me credit, so this was an unalloyed copyright violation.
My reply on Twitter went unacknowledged; clearly whoever is behind the account pays little heed to questions of credit and copyright.
The only remaining option was to send a DMCA takedown request to Twitter, but I wasn’t sure how much that was going to accomplish, short of triggering a backlash from Emergency Kittens’ half-a-million followers. Principle aside, there’s not much harm in having a picture of Goober in an Amazon box circulate throughout the Interwebs without photographer credit.
In the end I decided against a DMCA takedown (for now); instead I went sideways: I removed Creative Commons licencing from my photos on Flickr.
In the decade or so I’ve had my photos licenced under Creative Commons, all I asked from people was to give me credit, not use it for commercial purposes, and not create derivative works. But it’s surprising how something that sounds easy in principle turns out to be difficult in practice. Attribution is one issue. Another has been editorial use: whether that counts as commercial or non-commercial use is a bit of a grey area. Even for-profit publishers have tried to use CC-licenced photos without payment, even I have had to deal with this sort of thing on more than one occasion.
I suspected that the Creative Commons licence might give people who don’t know its requirements the mistaken impression that anything with that licence was fair game. Switching the photos’ licence to “All Rights Reserved” wouldn’t stop every case of infringement, but it might prevent the well-meaning edge cases — people searching for something free to use by using the Creative Commons filter on an image search.
If nothing else, the rules would be less ambiguous for everyone.
So as of July 29, my photos are now marked as “All Rights Reserved.” If you began using one of my photos prior to that date, you may still do so under the old terms: non-commercial use, give me credit. If you’d like to use my photos from now on, contact me for permission. For more details, see my FAQ.
As for Emergency Kittens, all I can say about it and other photo-sharing Twitter accounts is this:
- That cat belongs to someone.
- That photo belongs to someone.
- They didn’t necessarily ask permission.
This time, that someone was me.