Look But Don't Shoot

Look But Don't Shoot

Even a simple warning sign can help reduce the capturing and digital distribution of your work.

photos and text by Steve Meltzer

Courtesy of Handmade Business

Since the invention of photography, there has been a debate about openness and secrecy, promotion and privacy. At the heart of the debate is the control of the image: who owns it and who has rights.

Cyber Protection
Several years ago, I wrote a column about protecting crafts images on the Internet. Many craftspeople were rightly concerned that the open platforms of the Web could be a temptation for people to copy their designs. After all, craftspeople (and photographers like myself) survive by creating unique art though a combination of imagination, a high level of skill, and lots of laborious production time. Back then, I suggested protecting photos by adding ''watermarks'' of your name and/or a copyright notice either directly to the visible image or invisibly to the image file itself. This was not a perfect solution, because obviously the image was visible to a copier, but I thought that it might discourage some duplication.

Sadly, recent developments have made me realize just how naïve this was and how dangerous the Internet can be for original work and ideas. At the heart of the problem are two factors, one is the ease of copying images and the other is the proliferation of image capture devices, like the iPhone.

Duplication Dilemmas
Let me start with the issue of duplication. One of the most egregious examples of this problem occurred a few months ago. It concerned a New York City guy who created a website to promote his wedding photography, in spite of the fact that he had never shot a wedding and hadn't even studied photography. No, all he did was buy a camera. So to build his website, he took--or rather stole--photographs from the websites of established wedding photographers. With these pilfered images, he opened his website for business.

This was bad enough, but what happened when the ruse was discovered? He merely shrugged off the deluge of criticism, and his unrepentant reply was, ''I don't care. It is only business.'' Unashamedly, he continued to publicize his wedding photography business with other people's photos.

Look But Don

Cameras can make ordinary, nice people turn rude in a flash.

This news article sent shivers down my spine. The fakery was discovered by accident. He could have gotten away with his thievery and no one would have been the wiser. It demonstrates the vulnerability of images on the Internet, and it made me realize that I needed to change my behavior.

First thing I did was to stop willy-nilly uploading of images to the Web and particularly to social-media sites, like Facebook. Next, I started to keep an eye on images of mine already on the Web. Using tags and keywords, I regularly do a Google Image Search for my photos. While Google is far from perfect, it certainly helps me find my images. From there, I can tell if these pictures have been used without compensation to me or sans my permission.

Often the Google search turns up images of mine that were taken for magazine stories or for websites used elsewhere. The biggest abusers of photos are bloggers, who seem to have little compunction about taking images without permission and using them to illustrate their blogs. Sometimes when a photo is lifted from a magazine and posted somewhere else, it gets copied repeatedly.

I Spy with My Smart Phone
The other aspect of the photo problem is the ubiquitous and constant use of billions of smart phones. To illustrate this problem, one needs only to turn to the pages of the New York Times. It was reported that a growing trend in Big Apple restaurants has been to ban photography altogether. As one chef lamented, ''In the past, diners would excitedly take pictures of themselves and their companions in my gorgeous deco dining room. Now they just take photos of my original dishes.'' He went on to say, ''If people take a photo and put it out on social media... it takes away a little bit of my intellectual property too. Someone could copy me.''

Sound familiar? Artists and craftspeople have always worried about copyists coming into their booth spaces at crafts shows and art fairs and snapping photos. Not so long ago this kind of photography required a camera, so it was easy to spot someone in a booth with a big camera and to have alarm bells go off. But what do you do now when everyone has a camera-capable smart phone or tablet? How do you know whether visitors are taking pictures of your work to copy, or just showing all their friends the ''cool and awesome'' work you've done?

Obviously, it won't help anyone's business to personally tell potential customers not to take pictures. In New York, London, and Paris, some chefs have resorted to putting ''NO Photo'' signs (a camera in a red circle with a red bar through it) on the menus. This universal symbol is easily understood and offers as a gentle reminder to customers to put down their phone and enjoy their meals. Perhaps like these chefs, craftspeople need to do the same and put up signs in their booth to remind people to put down the phone or camera and enjoy the work. The ''NO'' sign business is a thriving industry, and there are dozens of companies online offering signs that forbid everything from photography to eating ice-cream cones to wayward ghosts.
Look But Don

People at a gallery or at an art fair should look at the work without taking pictures

Nonetheless, pretty soon any sort of proactive defense may be useless. Just over the horizon is the prospect of hidden recording devices in things such as Google Glasses and its cloned competitors. Imagine hundreds--no, thousands--of show attendees posting pictures of your work in real time on social media and blog sites by just saying, ''Camera, take a picture.''

It is a scary future. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei calls it the ''invisible'' prison, a world of inconspicuous cameras and 24/7 total surveillance in the disguise of smiley-faced social media. It is a future where words such as ''copyright'' might be meaningless. How will we protect our originality then?