With recent stories in the photography industry casting light on several controversies ‒ including: a renowned global photo competition being caught up in a plagiarism scandal; Marie Claire magazine using a photographer’s shot without her permission; and critically acclaimed photojournalist Souvid Datta “appropriating” others photographers’ work as his own ‒ it’s fair to say the industry has somewhat of an ‘image’ problem on its hands. Quite evidently, the blurred line over copyright and plagiarism is dividing photographers and other stakeholders, while the ethics of some is putting an asterisk next to their name and accomplishments.
Although it’s hardly new for photographers to have their photos used by others, the nature of the problem has only been exacerbated in recent years with the surge in social media use. Nowadays, sharing a photo is merely a click or two away, meaning photographers are afforded less protection of their own work. Whereas music and film has long drawn significant attention in its own respective plight dealing with those who steal work, photographers have largely been left to fend for themselves – something not so easy for your typical photographer.
What has become apparent is that social media platforms need to take greater accountability for the proliferation of such theft. That’s right, we’re talking about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others. We’ve recently seen conglomerates put pressure on YouTube for the promotional content that is affiliated with its sponsors ads, and rightly so. But the media giant’s leaning bias represents an industry preference to deal with a problem that affects big companies, while the little guys go unnoticed in their own battle.
Photographers can’t be expected to pursue this battle individually or through costly legal exercises. As a medium for distributing content, such social media platforms should take a responsibility to protect the content rights of its users ‒ even if legally they may absolve this.
The problem however, sometimes extends beyond the realm of third parties. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see photographers manipulating the work of their peers to produce their own content. Now on this point, there are delicacies to consider with regards to what may be a case of copyright infringement, and what is morally wrong or against photographer ethics.
You see, since the time photographers have had access to cameras and film, they have been continually experimenting and testing the boundaries with respect to creative vision. As such, it’s conceivable that in some instances what one photographer is attempting to do has been done before ‒ in some iteration or another, whether published or not. With this, it begs the question, are you plagiarising someone else’s work when it comes to a certain theme or concept? The answer is a muddled and confusing, “it depends”.
If a photographer is borrowing a certain element or two from a photo, as opposed to copying them or the ideas associated with them, then that should pass as acceptable use. However, if the overall integration of said elements creates a concept, or represents the ideas of another photographer, we should be treating this as we would if a photographer directly ‘copied’ the elements of another party’s work ‒ and that is, as plagiarism. What do you think? Where do you draw the line on copyright infringement and plagiarism?