“Make sure the internet never loses. Ever.” Last week saw the launch of the Internet Defense League, a self-appointed “loose coalition that shares a commitment to defending the Internet.” In a spot of ambush marketing timed to coincide with the release of The Dark Knight Rises, and boasting their very own cat signal, the IDL issued a nerdy call to arms:

“The Internet Blackout was just the beginning. Together, our websites and personal networks can mobilize the planet to defend the internet from bad laws & monopolies. Are you in?”

It’s hard not to point and laugh at a group whose world-view is defined by comic books and one of whose supporters was so excited by the news that they couldn’t tell their cats from their bats. As copyright attorney Leslie Burns commented on twitter: “OMG… When they get out of their parents’ basements, I’ll take the IDL seriously.”

But dismissing the IDL as a bunch of juvenile jokers is a mistake. In fact many of them promote such an image as part of their marketing schtick: follow the money and a rather different picture emerges. One of the prime movers behind the IDL is social news site Reddit. Far from being just a bit batty, Reddit is a subsidiary of Advance Publications Inc, the multibillion dollar media empire privately owned by the Newhouse family, a publishing dynasty that makes the Murdoch clan look like new kids on the block. Well, how about another IDL founder, the Cheezburger Network? Surely the inventors of Lolcats fit the bill of kiddy nerds fooling around in their parents’ basement? Not quite: in the last few years Cheezburger, under CEO Ben Huh, has trousered $32 million in venture capital. Music-sharing site Grooveshark is one of the IDL’s less-wealthy founders: a mere $4.5 million in recent funding. The Open Technology Institute is a project from the New America Foundation, which boasts an impressive list of well-off sponsors including contributions of over $1 million a head from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Eric & Wendy Schmidt of Google fame.

The list goes on and the true picture is clear: most of the IDL founders are full or aspiring members of the Internet Fat Cat League. And just as the IDL’s hipster image is misleading, so are their stated aims. The IDL claim they aim to “mobilize the planet to defend the internet from bad laws”: expect this to be dressed up in much high-minded talk of free speech and scary guff about legislation that will “break the internet”.

However the only laws that interest the IDL are those relating to intellectual property, and with good reason: the IDL’s movers are not so much interested in free speech as free content. The genesis of the IDL was the so-called Internet Blackout of January 18, when many sites, including some of the IDL founders, went off-line in protest at the USA’s proposed Stop Online Piracy Act. SOPA was portrayed by protesters as an attempt at Internet censorship, but the real threat was to the business model of sites that rely on the so-called safe harbour provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to protect them against legal action for copyright infringement. Sites like… Cheezburger, Grooveshark and many other IDL founders.

When these corporations – for that’s what they are – rant against legislation in the name of free speech it’s merely a smokescreen: all they’re really doing is acting to protect their business interests. It’s hard to raise a torches and pitchforks mob with a cry of “defend my venture capital”, but “defend the Internet” will do the trick every time. SOPA was shelved, at least in part because the protesters comprehensively won the propaganda war, successfully portraying the bill’s supporters as greedy corporations out to – you guessed – break the Internet. And so, buoyed with success and wary of a future SOPA, the IDL was born.

As it happens, there’s a very good analogy for the many of the IDL’s founders, but it’s not kids in basements. Like the spivs of the banking industry, the freetards at Cheezburger et al have developed business models based on theft. Both the spivs and the freetards display an overwhelming sense of entitlement. And when faced with legislation both groups raise the same battle cry: “You don’t understand how these things work, regulation will break the system.”

Since most legislators understand little about the workings of either the Internet or the financial markets it’s not surprising that such a strategy is successful. No politician wants to be accused of supporting laws that wreck either the financial markets or that new-fangled interweb thingy. So if SOPA or similar does return, expect it to be accompanied by large helpings of very well-funded FUD from the IDL. Perhaps they should replace that cat on their signal with a dollar sign.

Not what Pinterest were expecting you to pin. And pin and pin and pin....

Fence [noun]: “a receiver of stolen goods” – Merriam Webster.
“An individual who knowingly buys stolen property for later resale, sometimes in a legitimate market.” – Wikipedia.

Like every latest greatest thing on the interweb Pinterest has seen a sudden rush of subscribers simply because…well…because it’s the latest greatest thing on the interweb. Described as a “virtual pinboard”, Pinterest claims to “let you organize and share all the beautiful things you find on the web”. This is usually done by a “Pin It” button, a browser bookmarklet that copies content from a web page to the user’s Pinterest board. From there it can be copied by other Pinterest users to their boards, and from there…well, you get the idea.

Alarm bells should already be ringing, but that hasn’t prevented a stampede for the Pinterest bandwagon. BMI Airlines launched a Pinterest lottery; GUESS, a Pinterest contest. Amateur Photographer, the world’s oldest photographic magazine, began pinning iconic photographs from the likes of Magnum, Corbis and Getty Images. The UK’s National Portrait Gallery has likewise been pinning images from their collection. And millions of individuals have been trawling the web, pinning whatever takes their fancy.

And then the questions started. Like: who owns all this stuff anyway? And what does Pinterest plan to do with it all?

As the answers emerged – somebody else owns it, and Pinterest now claim rights to do whatever they want with it – some of the corporate pinners began to back off. First the Boston Business Journal pulled all their material after only one day on-site. Then Amateur Photographer’s pins quietly disappeared: unlike the BBJ the AP has declined to say why. The NPG material is still there, but after comments from photographers the NPG is now “looking at the implications for the Gallery”.

As concerns grew it became clear that for many people Pinterest’s real crime wasn’t just that they had created a system designed to encourage easy copyright infringement, but that they attempt to shift the blame for the ensuing infringements onto their users:

“YOU ACKNOWLEDGE AND AGREE THAT, TO THE MAXIMUM EXTENT PERMITTED BY LAW, THE ENTIRE RISK ARISING OUT OF YOUR ACCESS TO AND USE OF THE SITE, APPLICATION, SERVICES AND SITE CONTENT REMAINS WITH YOU.”

“you agree to defend, indemnify, and hold Cold Brew Labs, its officers, directors, employees and agents, harmless from and against any claims, liabilities, damages, losses, and expenses, including, without limitation, reasonable legal and accounting fees, arising out of or in any way connected with (i) your access to or use of the Site, Application, Services or Site Content, (ii) your Member Content, or (iii) your violation of these Terms.”

That may seem extreme, but it’s not unusual: many Internet sites have something similar, and since most users don’t read the terms of use nobody makes a fuss. But Pinterest got unlucky: one of their users was a lawyer, she did read the terms, and alarmed by what she found removed the material she had pinned and explained why. Naturally other lawyers picked up on the story, then other Pinterest users, and suddenly Pinterest found themselves in the eye of the web’s latest copyright storm.

There is of course a way to use Pinterest perfectly legally: just pin work you’ve created yourself or own the rights to. It’s true that in doing so you give Pinterest the rights to do anything they want with your work, including selling it. But if you’re a tireless self-promoter who doesn’t care how your work is used you may feel the publicity you get from Pinterest makes the trade-off worthwhile.

Except for one problem: that’s not what other Pinterest users – your audience – actually want you to do. So when tireless self-promoter and internet fauxtographer Thomas Hawk went on a “manic pinning episode of his own work” he was accused by one fan and Pinterest user of “masturbating in public” in using Pinterest for self-promotion.

And Pinterest agree, albeit in rather more restrained language:

“Avoid Self Promotion

Pinterest is designed to curate and share things you love. If there is a photo or project you’re proud of, pin away! However, try not to use Pinterest purely as a tool for self-promotion.”

So by their own admission Pinterest isn’t primarily for publishing original creative work, but republishing the work of third parties who almost inevitably will not have given permission.

Pinterest’s main defence in all this is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which provides Internet service providers with a measure of protection against prosecution as a result of copyright infringement by their users. But DMCA requirements are quite specific. They’re a package deal in which the provider is supposed to meet all the requirements, not pick and choose which parts they prefer, adding additional language to suit. However, according to intellectual property lawyer Connie Mableson, that’s exactly what Pinterest have done, leaving their DMCA defence looking distinctly creaky.

Even if Pinterest fix the wording of their DMCA offer there’s a further threat lurking: the DMCA is intended to protect providers some of whose users upload infringing content from time to time, not to protect companies whose entire raison d’être is copyright infringement. But that’s exactly the position Pinterest is in: without copyright infringement they have no business. Anyone at Pinterest who thinks that doesn’t matter needs to read this:

“We have spent millions of dollars on legal advice over the last few years and our legal advisers have always told us that we are secure and that we are protected by the DMCA which is a law in the US that is protecting online service providers of liability for the actions of their users.”

Those are the words of Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom, currently facing charges of racketeering, copyright infringement and money laundering. And what led to those charges? Why, Megaupload’s members were uploading and redistributing copyrighted material without permission – just like Pinterest’s members.

Econsultancy has asked: is Pinterest a copyright time bomb? The simple answer is yes. Pinterest is a cynical exercise that enables and encourages others to steal and is profiting from those thefts, while simultaneously attempting to plead innocence and place the blame on those who Pinterest encouraged to steal in the first place. But when the lawyers come calling, as they surely will, Pinterest may find that by shafting both creators and consumers of culture they have precious few friends left to defend them.

Welcome to the Photo Follies 2011 Awards, the Premier Photo Industry Contest In This Universe Or Any Universe Yet To Be Discovered™. Entries were judged by a jury consisting of leading industry figures, including a school of Barbary macaques, and senior Google Street View operators on loan from World Press Photo. Judging was overseen by the Russian Central Election Commission to ensure fairness.

The Shop Till You Drop Award [sponsored by Adobe]
Highly Commended: Terje Helleso, for Winter Coat.
Highly Commended: The Sun, for Libyan Low Fly Zone.
Winner: Huili County Government, China, for Walking On Air.
The judges’ verdict: By far the most popular category, this attracted a huge number of entries displaying impressive levels of incompetence. Swedish wildlife photographer Terje Helleso capped a 10 year cut ‘n’ paste career with an animal fashion faux pas. The UK’s Sun achieved spectacular results by outsourcing design duties to a 7 year old with a pair of scissors and Sellotape. The Chinese entry was however unbeatable, raising Photoshop incompetence to an art form: so powerful is it that the viewer feels himself levitating along with the subjects of the photo.

The Robotog Award For Photography And The Law
Highly Commended: London Transport Museum, for DSLR Camera Ban.
Highly Commended: Government of Slovenia, for Panorama Mania.
Winner: Los Angeles Long Beach Police Dept, for Art Police.

Photo © Tim Allen / www.timallenphoto.co.uk
The judges’ verdict: Last year it was reported that Kuwait had banned DSLR cameras. That turned out to be a hoax – but nobody told the London Transport Museum, which imposed its own ban this year. Meanwhile the Slovenian government took a broader view, banning all public panorama photography. Just to make sure they hadn’t missed anything, the ban was made retroactive: all panoramic photographs ever made in Slovenia are now illegal. Not bad, considering that photography has been in existence a century and a half longer than Slovenia itself. Long Beach police won by eschewing the crude truncheon-based approach to photo prevention so beloved by law enforcement colleagues elsewhere; instead officers are now required to supplement firearms training with courses on the history and theory of art and photography.

The Uncle Bob Award For Wedding Photography
Highly Commended: Lasting Impressions, for Where’s The Wedding?
Highly Commended: P&O, for Headless Bride Horror.
Winner: The All-Russia Union Of Wedding Photographers, for Avant-Garde Nuptials.
The judges’ verdict: The Derek Pye School Of Photography continues to churn out worthy award-winners. The Lasting Impressions video operator was unable to find the right wedding to attend after being uncaged; and P&O Cruise’s wheeze of having the ship’s chef double up as photographer was a recipe for disaster. Harking back to the heyday of the avant-garde, the Russian entry surpassed all others in its – ahem – creative approach to the art of wedding photography.

The Susan Sontag Award For Writing On Photography
Highly Commended: Guardian Eyewitness, for Pro Tip – Affordable underwater casings are now available for most cameras, while space travel remains prohibitively expensive.
Highly Commended: Guardian Eyewitness, for Pro Tip  - When glueing your camera to a surfboard, it is important to choose your adhesive carefully.
Winner: Guardian Eyewitness, for Pro Tip  - It is important to avoid laughing while taking a photograph as this can lead to camera shake.
The judges’ verdict: Just as digital technology has made everyone a photographer, so the Internet has made everyone a photography commentator. The web is awash with photo advice, but no other entrant came close to the Guardian for consistency and regularity: while readers daily admire the quality of the Eyewitness photography, professional photographers are equally awestruck by the accompanying Pro Tips.

Photo Caption Of The Year
Highly Commended: Eastern Daily Press, for Olympus Digital Camera.
Highly Commended: The Mail Online, for Media Scum.
Winner:The Globe & Mail Canada, for Caption Writer Meltdown.
The Mail Online's freudian slip
The judges’ verdict:
The UK’s Eastern Daily Press made official what everybody already knew – that it’s the camera that matters, not the photographer – and adjusted their photo credits accordingly. “You couldn’t make it up” is the Mail’s frequent battle cry, but for the Amanda Knox trial the UK tabloid did just that, splashing that Knox had been found guilty when the opposite was true. But the Mail got one thing right, with a telling typo in one of their photo captions for the story. The clear winner, however, was the Canadian Globe & Mail, where an anonymous – and now missing in action – caption writer identified a previously unknown connection between the paper’s Celebrity Photos of the Week & the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The Enron Award For Business Management
Highly Commended: Kodak, for What Happens In Vegas
Winner: Olympus, for Overcooked Books.
The judges’ verdict: As Kodak losses mounted, company executives did their bit by regularly splashing on private jets to Las Vegas. Olympus’ continued existence as a camera company had been a mystery to professional photographers, with the last recorded sighting of an Olympus camera at a photo-call as long ago as 1998. All was revealed when new CEO Michael Woodford inadvertently opened the books to discover 13 years and $1.7 billion worth of creative accounting.

Quote Of The Year
Highly Commended: Mark Zuckerberg, for Comedy Of Errors.
Highly Commended: Sienna Miller, for Tired And Emotional.
Winner: Johnny Depp, for Photography Is Rape.
Pluck me...we've got a leak
The judges’ verdict
: Everyone’s least favourite geek finally admitted what every Facebook user had been telling him for years: but only after it was his own account that got hacked. Former topless model turned actress Sienna Miller refocused the UK’s Levenson enquiry into the media away from trifling matters such as the hacking of a murdered schoolgirl’s phone toward more serious issues: the Daily Mirror’s cropping of photographs and celebrity documentarians’ habit of chasing her down the street. Although not a contributor to Levenson, it was the camera-shy Johnny Depp who won by building on Miller’s riff to reveal the true nature of photography in a cover story in Vanity Fair.

Photo Product Of The Year
Highly Commended: Sigma Deutschland, for SD1 Morris Minor Edition.
Highly Commended: Urban Outfitters, for Sienna Miller Anti-Paparazzi Shades.
Winner: Hasselblad, for H4D Ferrari Limited Edition.
The judges’ verdict: Who says the Germans don’t have a sense of humour? Sigma Deutschland attempted to kick-start sales of the SD1 by charging 10,000 euros for a limited edition version with wood trim styled after a 1950s Morris Minor Traveller. Urban Outfitters came up with a $12 solution for wannabe celebs wishing to appear anonymous. But racing to victory was the Hasselblad H4D Ferrari Limited Edition medium format camera. In tasteful racing red, and boasting specs including 800 horsepower and a motor-drive with a 0-60 speed of under 5 seconds, the H4D Ferrari was aimed squarely at a previously ignored niche market: wealthy middle-aged photographers with erectile dysfunction. A follow-up, the Jeremy Clarkson Limited Edition, is rumoured to be in the pipeline.

The Remix Award For Plagiarism
Highly Commended: Siegfried Kauder, for Double Strike.
Highly Commended: Cory Doctorow, for Boing!!! Cory Doctorow’s Daily Mail Copyright Clanger.
Winner: Bob Dylan & Richard Prince, for Everybody Else’s Images Revisited.
Photo by Ed Schipul (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The judges’ verdict:
German MP Siegfried Kauder immediately fell foul of his own proposed “two strikes and you’re out” copyright law when two photographs on his website were found to have been hijacked from elsewhere. Author and Creative Commons campaigner Doctorow blew a fuse when he learned that the Daily Mail had used some of his wife’s photographs without permission, then went ahead and did the same thing with a photograph from the Guardian the very same day. But the clear winner was the world’s first plagiarism supergroup. Dylan was caught out claiming paintings in a new exhibition were from his travels in Asia when they were very obviously slavishly copied from a variety of other people’s photographs. In a deliciously ironic twist the fawning catalogue to the exhibition was written by Richard “Prince Of Thieves”, who had just lost his own multi-million dollar copyright suit for ripping off photographs from Patrick Cariou’s book Yes Rasta.

Grand Prix de Folie Photographie
The judges’ verdict: This year’s winner was a no-brainer in every sense. The premier award has in the past been inevitably scooped by one of the industry’s big players; it’s a sign of changing times that this year’s winner is not even professionally involved in the photo business. Photo blogger Thomas Hawk started the year promisingly, with a museum confrontation that left him facing a $2m copyright and libel lawsuit. But Hawk’s tussle with the World Erotic Art Museum was mere foreplay: the best was yet to come in June, when he accused legendary New York photographer Jay Maisel of copyright enforcement practices that would make Tony Soprano blush. In the ensuing firestorm Hawk displayed his much-vaunted commitment to transparency first by abusing and censoring anyone who disagreed with his frankly expressed convictions, then by quietly removing his offending posts. Finally he removed his blog from its long-standing home in the offices of investment firm Stone & Youngberg, where Hawk’s alter ego Andrew Peterson works, to remotest Utah.

Screenshot showing Google’s display of EXIF metadata
Google’s display of EXIF metadata. Photo © Jeremy Nicholl 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Professional photographers have rarely looked kindly on Google. The search engine giant has long been the first port of call for image infringers, and the situation was only made worse by Google’s habit of stripping metadata from images, turning them into orphans.

But over the summer things have changed. In June Google launched Search By Image, and the following month began displaying EXIF data in their image search returns. The latter absolves Google of the orphaning charge, but it’s Search By Image that’s the real game-changer. Google have promoted SBI as a tool for image users to find images they might want to publish, and it could of course be used by such people to track down photo owners so that the image could be properly licensed. But its real value to photographers lies in its ability to track down images that have already been stolen and published on the web.

Previously image searching on Google was a very hit and miss affair. Enter some keywords, and depending what had survived Google’s metadata mangling and any changes by the publisher you might or might not find the published mage: more usually than often not. But with SBI you enter a low-resolution version of the image on Google’s servers and they search the web for matching images: if any are found they appear in the search returns. And since a visual search is more precise and doesn’t rely on matching keywords SBI invariably returns far more results than a keyword search.

Of course SBI isn’t the first reverse image search: TinEye, PicScout and others have been running for several years. But Google’s offering is immensely more powerful simply because they’ve already indexed far more of the web than their rivals. Not that SBI is comprehensive: TinEye for one sometimes finds images that Google doesn’t, so ideally one should use several services when searching for infringements. But all of these searches are time-consuming, and SBI finds so many more images than the competition that if you’re only going to use one reverse image search then SBI has to be it.

All this is very bad news for photo thieves. For years they’ve heisted images with impunity: the chances of being caught were low, and if caught the default defence was “I found it on Google and didn’t know who the owner was”. But that excuse disappears with the now easily viewable metadata, and the chance of being caught has moved from remote to likely, going on inevitable.

Faced with the near-certainty of being caught a smart thief would stop. Unfortunately most image thieves aren’t smart, but dumb and lazy: too lazy to create anything original themselves, and dumb enough to think they can get away with stealing indefinitely. They’re also stuck in the habit of thieving, encouraged by spurious and misleading advice on such nebulous concepts as “fair use”.

So instead of the logical outcome of Google’s changes – contact the photographer for permission or don’t use the image – the actual result is likely to be lots more legal action from photographers. And of course lots more squealing from thieves who get caught.

But that’s their problem. The first reaction of photographers who try SBI is generally fury at learning the previously unknown extent of the theft of their work. That’s hardly surprising, but really we should be pleased to see the tables being turned, albeit slowly.

Cory Doctorow: serious about copyright... Photo by Ed Schipul (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Question: what do you call someone who campaigns for anyone to be allowed to publish a photographer’s work without permission, and then complains when someone publishes his wife’s photographs without permission? Answer: Cory Doctorow.

Our old friends Irony and Schadenfreude had a field day last week when writer and wannabe copyright reformer Doctorow mounted the Boing Boing barricades to rant against “the awful Daily Mail, a hateful right-wing tabloid that keeps finding new bottoms to scrape.”

That’s an interesting image, but what was the reason for his ire? Apparently his wife Alice snapped an anorexic mannequin in Gap and uploaded the image to TwitPic; Doctorow then published the photo at Boing Boing accusing Gap of “death camp chic”. The Mail, ever on the lookout for a good scandal, picked up on the story and called asking to use the image.

Despite their reservations about the Mail the Doctorows, after due consideration of, oh, a few seconds or so, decided the hateful right-wing tabloid could have the snap for a charity donation of £250. The Mail [part of Associated Newspapers, with 2010 operating profits of £42M] countered that was beyond their budget. Then the Mail did what the Mail does, and lifted the photo anyway – along with a few juicy quotes into the bargain.

Unsurprisingly the Doctorows were outraged, hence the Cory vent in which he accused the Mail of “ripping off” the picture, ending with a demand for £2,000 for two infringed images and the vaguely threatening words “updates to come, I’m sure”. But could this be the same Cory Doctorow that has spent most of his adult life campaigning for the weakening of copyright laws? The Doctorow that tours as a poster boy for Creative Commons licenses that allow photographers’ work to be used without permission? The one that “rips off” photographs for his own articles?

Well, er, yes; which is why a few of the responses to his article were less than kind, accusing him of hypocrisy. However the Doctorow fan boys, like Cory usually very much in favour of redistributing photographers’ work without permission, felt his pain and the comments were largely filled with suggestions that the Doctorows should call M’ Learned Friends. Although it would be highly entertaining to watch the Doctorows sue the Mail for copyright infringement that’s sadly not going to happen; or at the very least they’ll have to get in line.

For what the Doctorows overlooked is that in uploading the image to TwitPic they had already given away their image distribution rights long before the Mail came calling. As the rest of the Internet already knows, TwitPic signed a highly contentious deal with the World Entertainment News Network in May that gives WENN distribution rights to any images uploaded to TwitPic, and without any payment to the image owner. So if anyone is going to be suing the Mail it will be WENN, not the Doctorows. Interestingly the story disappeared from the Mail site over the weekend without the Doctorows’ knowledge, so it may be that WENN have already contacted the paper.

The final irony is that only hours after his Mail bitch-fest, Doctorow was busy ripping off photographs himself. On August 16th, the day of Doctorow’s rant, the Guardian ran a story from the Edinburgh Festival with a photograph by Murdo Macleod. And the following day there was a story about the Edinburgh Festival on Boing Boing, filed by Cory Doctorow and with that very same Murdo Macleod image. Doubtless Doctorow took time off from discussing the Mail with his lawyers to ask Macleod’s permission to use the image. If not he will have already calculated what he owes Macleod for “ripping off” the photo: his own going rate of £1,000 per image.

It’s clear that Doctorow, despite his carefully constructed image as a cutting-edge thinker on intellectual property matters, has a lot to learn when it comes to copyright. But last week should have provided a lesson simple enough for even Doctorow to grasp: when it comes to intellectual property and ripping off other people’s photographs, what goes around comes around.

What I’m thinking…

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