Opinion: Image Rights and Social Networks

Millions of images are published and shared everyday via social networks, some mere snapshots with little more value than a Tweet (“a short burst of inconsequential information”), others with immense personal value as memory of a significant moment, others master pieces celebrating the joy of sharing or as a way for wannabe or actual professional photographers to get known and acquire a clientele.

At the same time, the stock photography industry (images made available for a fee by photographers for advertisement or the press) has seen its prices collapse and many photographers losing a substantial part of their revenues, even forcing some to abandon photography altogether. Nowadays, even only a limited number of stock photo agencies are being successful in the middle of a cutthroat market.

As this happens, most social networks, these days with Facebook but other before, are attempting to get a cheap source of images for their corporate needs, in particular their advertisement. As time goes it is likely that all other piece of personal information (this is said generically but think about: your videos, your name, your friends, your private messages, your address, your phone number, your history…) will become fair game for social networks, giving them the ability of digging into your life and exploiting the data for their direct or indirect benefits, either for their own advertisement or for the one they sell to third party.

Recently discussing with a friend from the IT industry we were elaborating on the future of “big data”. I used to think that big data was just a sexy term to justify the massive investments in storage to accumulate data but without the real ability to analyse the information and transform it into anything useful. A bit like what happened with the various intelligence agencies before 9/11: somewhere in their pile of information, they knew about the terror attacks but they weren’t able to find it because they lacked the material capacity to handle all that data. The current NSA scandal shows that governments have tremendously increased their information gathering capabilities and are continuously making advances with their abilities to handle it. An example being the recent admission that the NSA is able to continuously breaking strong encryption.

I now realise that I was optimistic about the inability of corporations to mine into that pile of data. In fact, corporations are always much more efficient than government agencies when their interests dictate it. Social networks’ interest lies into excelling in selling targeting, something like creating the perfect virtual shopping centre: as a seller how much would it be worth to you if someone could offer you a spot in a shopping centre (virtual or not) where ALL visitors would buy something from you, with quasi certainty? That is what social networks, and in particular Facebook, are aiming at and for this they need all information they can get from their users, they want to know and exploit everything possible about individuals, massage the data and sell, not the data itself, but the shop location in that particular spot that represent a sure sell for each visitor.

Photoanimalium.com is about images, animal images and has no ambition beyond that. I regularly publish images and links on social networks to share my works and let people decide for themselves if they like what I do. As such I am using social networks for my benefits, the benefit being at this stage to share my images. I however cannot condone that huge corporations producing billions in profits would not even have to pay for the images they use for their advertisement, at a time when stock images have not ever been cheaper in history and at a time when they have not made more profits.

A friend, professional photographer, recently told me that he wasn’t feeling threatened by the change of facebook policy as amongst the millions of images shared every day, there was little chance that his images would be selected especially as he only publishes low resolution images. I agree with his view and along the same lines of thoughts I don’t feel threatened, however as a matter of principle going forward, I won’t contribute my images directly to social networks, but rather share links to my website leading to these images.

The convenience of sharing with other people, the ability to stay connected with friends and family members, is surely worth a price, which I am already paying regularly by seeing my feed cluttered with advertisements for my “benefits” and thus this convenience is to me not worth giving away the rights of my images to social networks.

Opinion: Image Rights and Social NetworksChristian C. Berclaz

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