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I couldn't make a better headline than Arstechnicas Bugging out: How rampant online piracy squashed one insect photographer. Photographer Alex Wild who has made photographing insects his speciality writes about the pros, and giant cons of the rampant infringement on the internet and his experiences.
For a concise idea of what could go wrong, let me indulge in a list of recent venues where commercial interests have used my work without permission, payment, or even a simple credit:
Billboards, YouTube commercials, pesticide spray labels, website banners, exterminator trucks, t-shirts, iPhone cases, stickers, company logos, eBook covers, trading cards, board games, video game graphics, children’s books, novel covers, app graphics, alt-med dietary supplement labels, press releases, pest control advertisements, crowdfunding promo videos, coupons, fliers, newspaper articles, postage stamps, advertisements for pet ants (yes, that’s a thing), canned food packaging, ant bait product labels, stock photography libraries, and greeting cards.
Yesterday evening, while Googling insect references in popular culture, I discovered that a small Caribbean island helped itself to a photograph I took in 2008. My photo shows a slave-raiding ant, a fascinating species that survives as a parasite on the labor of other ants. But the image had been imprinted on the back of a commemorative one-cent piece. Perhaps symbolically, this is one cent more than I received for my part in bringing the coin to the public.
The time spent on tracking down infringers eats up the time that could have spent investing in his photography. You should read the article in full, it explains very well what anyone in a creative business has to deal with today - be they photographers, illustrators, musicians, writers, even programmers - and there is no amount of t-shirt sales that will help this issue. The old trope "don't post it on the internet" is rebutted too.
“If you don’t want your work infringed, don’t post it.”
Of all the varieties of infringement-related comments, the “stay off the Internet” refrains are the most toxic. In one go they both acknowledge that infringement is bad for artists while also showing no concern for the Internet, which would be poorer for their absence. “Don’t post it” is the ultimate nihilistic diss.
Worse still, too many artists heed this advice to their (and our) detriment. Too little copyright protection carries a pervasive chilling effect of its own, one that is common but nearly invisible. We simply do not see the creative works that are not shared.
At my workshops, I invariably meet people who bring fantastic images. Stunning katydids. Rare behaviors of parasitic wasps. Artfully anthropomorphized arachnids. You will never see their efforts online, though, because fear of infringement keeps many of them from uploading. This self-censorship is common, and the result is bad for everyone.
The Internet, as rich as it is in content, is less rich than it could be. If we ever needed an incentive for copyright reform, this is it. New laws and new technologies should, of course, grant greater flexibility for non-commercial sharing, provide stronger fair use guidelines, and shorten the bizarrely long copyright terms. But reforms need also provide concrete assurances to artists, reassurances that the mere act of participating online won’t force them to choose between bankruptcy and chasing infringers through the rabbit hole of ineffective copyright enforcement.
More artists online will make for a better Internet, and we all could use an Internet with better stuff.