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It's not right, but it's okay

TPB1988's picture

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The concept of copyrighting often becomes a vague and distant idea when one considers the innumerable amount of readily available images in the world. With two clicks of a mouse a person can instantly have their very own copy of an original piece without the hassle of paperwork. A Google Image search will provide thousands of images in less than thirty seconds all without ever leaving your seat.  With so many options to getting your picture needs satisfied immediately it becomes difficult to remind oneself of the more legitimate process of legally acquiring an image. Most internet users usually respond to this alternative with a general reaction of “oh yeah, that’s right I forgot all about copyrighting”. With access to the internet the principle that information can be contained and controlled receives more of a comical response most likely ending with a scoff other than anything else. Laws become more like guidelines open to interpretation and consequences begin to sound like empty threats. As shocking as this may be for many, copyright laws still exist and are in fact laws with regulations and repercussions that are applicable in this day and age.

                United States federal copyright laws began in May 1790 when James Madison proposed a provision““to secure to literary authors their copyrights for a limited time.” The first work  was registered merely two weeks after the founding of the law proving the legislative act to be functional. The claims were at first handled in the U.S. district courts by clerks but as time passed more people began to make use of the copyright function and in 1870 it became centralized in the Library of Congress. In 1897 the Copyright Office then became its own department in the Library of Congress in turn creating the position of Register of Copyrights. Presently the Copyright Office can be found in Washington D.C. and currently employs approximately 475 people. In a year the Office registers half a million claims, records more than 11, 000 documents, and collects a quarter billion dollars in license funds for later distribution to copyright holders. In comparison to having clerks in the U.S. District Courts performing these claims it would be a safe to say that as the years have gone by the usage copyright laws has exponentially grown adapting itself to fit the modern needs of the public while at the same time creating more positions for workers.  Despite the common belief that copyrighting is an outdated law it still proves to be thriving.

                The Copyright laws were originally created to encourage creativity while at the same time protecting the rights of the creator. As time passes the copyright law is amended accordingly such as when photographs and photographic negatives were added to protective works in March 3, 1865. Registration has also evolved overtime now allowing a person to electronically register their work since July 1, 2008 thereby facilitating the entire process. In the last few years one of the most important acts to have been passed is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This act protects companies such as Google from being liable for any kind of infringement of the copyright law. The act states that when companies such as Google are notified of the infringement they will either terminate the user account or remove the content from their services. Despite the immediate connection the internet provides, to file a complaint of infringement to Google is a lengthy and time consuming process making it more difficult for creators of any kind to protect their work. Assuming the complaint towards Google is legitimate the company will remove all material related to the subject matter and at times may pay for all the costs involved such as the attorney fees.

                In the context of images the creator of the piece is generally reimbursed and his work protected with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act yet none of the people breaking the copyright law are actually held accountable.  Continuing with the Google example, if many people had been using Google images to see an image, save it, or reproduce it without permission from the artist or photographer involved then they are all culpable for infringing upon the copyright law. Yet with the images being so readily available on the internet to so many millions of people it becomes nearly impossible to hold each person accountable for their crime.

Many times the moral issues involved in copyrighting are not taken into account by the law itself. For instance, many teachers use Google or other resources to provide their class a more effective learning experience at the cost of artist who painted or photographed the image. Should these educators be held accountable for such a breach of the law? Ultimately these issues are dealt with the artist themselves or the venues carrying the piece.  At times an artist feeling that their monetary gain is not in danger by an educator who is not profiting from their work will have no problem sharing their image with students. At times educators will blatantly admit to taking images from Google and using them in their PowerPoint’s or class discussions such as many art professors do for every class knowing that the chances of being discovered are so minimal they barely consider the task itself as taking risk.

When it comes to more dated images it becomes less of a problem for anyone wishing to obtain a copy of the image. Usually the artist will have passed and the rights of the image will belong to a venue rather than a venue, an artist, and a photographer.  If one wanted to use this image they would contact a venue which in reference to art or photographs will most likely be a museum. A person would then write a written statement asking for their permission to reproduce the image. The venue will then make an informed decision depending on the purpose behind the distribution of the image. If the image were to be published in an educational article that would most likely not create a large profit they would not charge an immense fee. Although, if the publishing of the image is for a book that has intentions of selling many copies the museum would ask publishers how many copies are expected to sell and depending on the answer they receive they would present a certain price for allowing the image to be displayed. Each the time the image is reproduced the author would pay the required fee. For example, if the image is on page 40 and then on page 88 the author would pay the museum fee twice.  If the artist of the image is alive then the author would need his permission as well as the venues which are why modern art is considered very difficult to reproduce. The fees behind the copyrighting of these images are not usually inexpensive which does not allow for many authors who rely on images for their articles or novels to publish again.  For this reason many published authors that use images will admit to retiring from the publishing business due to the costs.

                Copyright laws were created to protect the artist and their work. Currently this is not always the case as many times it becomes more of a financial battle than a discussion about the piece. Originally the intentions behind the copyright law were noble and there will always be a need for protection against those who choose to profit from another’s work but for the moment copyright laws are not as effective as they appear. With the internet offering endless possibilities towards image theft a grey zone is created in which images are not as protected as they should be. Other times the images are overly protected which in turns discourages new art, such as books, from being created. Copyright laws are essential in a modern society yet because it is modern society flexibility must also be present within the law. Images have been a part of the world for many years and will continue to be for many more years to come with the assistance of copyright laws to protect them.



1.       U.S. Copyright Office, . "A Brief Introduction and History." U.S. Copyright Office. August 2009. Library of Congress, Web. 16 Feb 2010. <>.

2.       U.S. Copyright Office, . "Can I Use Someone Else's Work? Can Someone Else Use Mine?." U.S. Copyright Office. 06 Oct 2009. Library of Congress, Web. 16 Feb 2010. <>.

3.       Google , . "Digital Millenium Copyright Act." Google. 2010. Google, Web. 16 Feb 2010. <>.


Anne Dalke's picture

The history--and the future?

TPB1988 --
What you've provided here is a history of copyright regulation, beginning with an explanation of its original intended purpose--to protect the creative (as well as the financial?) rights of artists--and ending with some of the financial consequences of the regulations, which are clearly not limited to the needs of artists, but include those who may profit from their work. Such regulations may also fail to accommodate the needs (for example) of others, such as educators, who want to make a non-profit use of the created work.

I've learned a lot from your history, and also find myself with lots of additional questions, (for example) about whether copyright extends beyond the life of the artist, or why you think the reproduction of an image necessarily occurs "at the cost of artist who painted or photographed" it. Some of your claims--such as "many published authors that use images will admit to retiring from the publishing business due to the costs"--seem to me unsubstantiated, and I'm wanting to know where from they've come. You conclude by saying that, although images are sometimes "not as protected as they should be," @ other times they are "overly protected." What constitutes each case? Can you give me some concrete examples?

As you know, I have particular questions about the appropriate role of educators in this process; you say that many of us use copyrighted images "knowing that the chances of being discovered are so minimal they barely consider the task itself as taking risk." Others of us may feel that it's important to violate law as a way of changing a system that really isn't working. For a range of possibilities along these lines, see the investigative work of some of your classmates:
rmeyers, Say Copyright, Say Creative Commons
ShaynaS, Steal This Essay
mkarol, Who wants to pay $11,000?

Of course I also have a particular interest in the image w/ which you begin your essay, and which draws us so effectively into your argument: is it copyrighted? Do you feel okay using it? Following what rationale? Why did you not attribute the source form which you took that image?

Those are concrete applications of a series of much larger questions I'd also like to ask, about how you can imagine copyright law evolving to accommodate the increasing availability of images on the internet. Does your title --"It's not right, but it's okay"--indicate your views on these matters?

TPB1988's picture

While writing this paper I

While writing this paper I was not certain as to how I felt on the topic of copyrighting. As a result I tried not to put so much of my own opinion in the paper because to be honest I did not know where I stood on the copyrighting issue.  I think that copyrighting is an idea that comes from a good place because all artists deserve to have their work acknowledged as their own, and they should also be able to profit from their ideas. By my standards, it is not fair for someone to use another’s work without their permission which is what I was trying to say when I wrote “at the cost of artist who painted or photographed". The artist used time, supplies, and thought into creating an image and they become victims when someone just decides to borrow it for their own purposes, especially if it is to profit from the image. At the same time if some such as an educator borrows the image without any intentions of reproducing outside of their classroom there is real no damage being done.  The law cannot be expected to distinguish between the two and is therefore not as effective as it is could be. Nonetheless, the law still offers protection for the artists which I think is a great idea. That is why I titled my paper “It’s not right, but it’s okay”. I meant to say the law is certainly not perfect but it is still necessary.

Currently I think that the law is a little outdated due all the technological advances that ultimately allow people to steal and benefit from another’s work with a few clicks. At the same time the law is also too strict because it sometimes becomes solely about money. When I spoke to an art history professor she admitted her frustration at the law because she had personal experiences with publishing and copyrighting. She provided most of my vague and somewhat “unsubstantiated” examples. Seeing as this paper is online and open for anyone I chose not to go into too much detail or even quote her in order to protect her privacy. A more concrete example would be when she informed me of her experiences with the law. As a published author she knows the immensely costly issues that come with using art images in her book. She claims that most museums take advantage of the copyright laws by overcharging for images in a book that will mostly likely not sell too many copies due to the educational content. Despite all the problems with the law, she does understand why it was established and does not wish to get rid of it entirely but instead upgrade it to a more modern version that accommodates everyone.  

                As far as using the picture in my paper, I would be lying if I said I did not feel a little hesitant at first.  After all my research I became more aware of where the images are coming from. I am not aware if the image I borrowed is copyrighted yet I have no fear of being caught. With simple images like the one I used, or the one you posted, no one will notice whether we used it or not. Also, seeing as the images we both used were meant for our class to see and we will not be profiting from them I feel much less guilty than if I used a picture in an essay I planned to sell or publish. Sometimes an image is not even copyrighted because the creators do not agree with the notion of copyrighting (like some of my classmates) and they willingly share their images online. As far as attributing it to the source, I did not feel like it was so necessary because I would simply attribute it to Google images as I don’t know where the image exactly came from. If the artist had wanted the image to be traced back to him/herself than they could’ve made the source evident rather than obscurely hidden. If that was the case then I would’ve absolutely given credit to the creator.

                I don’t necessarily know how the law should change to accommodate modern internet users but it definitely does need to change. I completely disagree that we as internet users should purposely break the law because then all artists are working for free so others can benefit. It might seem highly general and vague but I think that hard work deserves credit and unfortunately nothing is free in the world. Perhaps if money were not such a major role in the world and in laws the concept of free knowledge would be possible. As far as writing online and having you post to my writing I thought it was really a unique experience. I like that we can continue a conversation about the paper because it helps me understand my own argument and it answers your own questions. At the same time, on the writing aspect, I think I do prefer to write for just for my professors. This might be just the case at the moment because I am not used to having my thoughts online and as the course continues I will become more confident and less insecure. Overall the “posting an online paper” was a lot less painful than I expected. I hope this answers your questions.