Respecting copyright of old photographs – the good, the bad, and the ugly

I regard myself as ‘custodian’ of my collection of vintage photographs – after all I didn’t actually create the images – and the joy of sharing them online is to see the comments and to find the images (or most often simply links to them) on the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia etc. I release almost all of my vintage images under a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial licence. This means that as long as any use is non-commercial and credits the source of an image (typically with a link to the original) then that’s fine with me.  The result of this approach is that I see lots of people viewing them on Flickr (just over a million views to-date), with many coming from such sources.  Assuming the people that actually click through are just the tip of the iceberg then it confirms that lots of people are enjoying the images. I like that thought.

Yes, on occasion they will be exploited and that is not right, but the only real alternative is to never share them at all and I couldn’t bear just hiding all the images in a cupboard or on a hard drive never to be seen. It’s also of note that I have certainly made more income (albeit trivial sums) by sharing them under an appropriate license and then people contacting me to ask, than if I had never put them out there at all.

There will always be thieves, but as any corner shop shows that’s no reason to put the tastiest chocolate bars out of reach where people can’t easily grab them.

Anyway, I have seen three things lately that have made me think of the issues around sharing old photographs online, and the ways that people might use, and abuse, those images.

The Good

Unknown sailing ship

Unknown sailing ship, used properly under license

A couple of days ago I started seeing a number of people coming through to an image I have of a sailing ship. They were coming from this page. At first I couldn’t quite work out why, but then saw that all the sources that made up the composite are listed and linked, and the sailing ship shown to the back right was taken from my image.  So the artist has taken a range of images that were available under a suitable license, applied their own creative skill, and then when they published their work they have linked to the source images. Perfect. (Though ironically there’s no copyright information on their image so I don’t know if I’m allowed to share it here!).

The Bad

Hari Dasu, India. c. 1900?

Hari Dasu, India. c. 1900?

I’ve long been aware that some of my most popular and notable images on Flickr had found themselves being quite widely reproduced across the web. Not in itself a specific problem, but as you might imagine not everyone was respecting the license, especially the attribution part.

I’m not sure whether it’s a good or bad thing that there are now a few tools to help you find these things. The two most notable ones that I have used are TinEye and Google‘s image search feature (click on the camera) that both let you drag and drop an image into the search, or paste in an image url (web address). TinEye now allows you to just paste in the address of a Flickr page and as long as you have a little bit of patience it can return some interesting results (though it seems to find far, far less than Google). If you want to try them, here’s an interesting url to try – – almost certainly my most plagiarised image.

The Ugly

I have to confess that even in the above examples, almost all of them are non-commercial and not exploiting my images as such, and generally I suspect any issues with lack of attribution are based on poor awareness amongst authors. Likewise there have also been some concerns raised about services like Pinterest, but in most cases that I’ve seen the source has been credited (though annoyingly if someone ‘pins’ an image from a site which does give proper attribution, it still cites that secondary site as the source).  The bigger issue is how easy it is to ‘Pin’ images that are marked as all rights reserved, something that generally doesn’t apply to my images.

But one example has just come to light that exemplifies how little regard some companies have for copyright and attribution, even when they should know better. As I said on TwitterIf someone fails to credit an image source that’s one thing, but when sites like @imgur don’t even let people do it, that’s out of order“.

The site in question is, which I found when my cousin posted a link on Facebook to a gallery of interesting historic images. I find so many things wrong with this site, things that collectively amount to the worst case I’ve ever seen in terms of lack of respect for the rights holders of historic images:

  • none of the images are attributed
  • even if the images were used under license there’s no way for users to acknowledge that
  • you can’t see who uploaded the image, let alone contact them
  • you can’t comment on these images
  • they provide code for anyone to embed the gallery elsewhere, which in turn has links to view and download the original resolution images
  • anyone can download the original files for the entire gallery in a zip file in one easy click (it even emails you to tell you when the download is ready)

Yes, if whoever uploaded these images took more care and ensured that they didn’t upload images that they weren’t permitted to then there wouldn’t be a problem. But the truth is that even if, like with my images, they did have a suitable license the site simply makes it impossible to honour the requirements of proper attribution.

As a slight side story, I was intrigued by whether any of those images were definitely protected by copyright. I took the example of the haunting image of Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc – The original image was taken in 1963 by Associated Press photographer Malcolm Browne, who coincidentally died just a few weeks ago. The image is currently listed on the AP website and is clearly still in copyright. There’s an extra twist though. The image displayed on Imgur is colour, whereas the original was black & white. This version it turns out was created by Swedish artist Sanna Dullaway who has taken a whole series of classic black & white images and created colour versions. I wonder what permissions she got to use these original images? On the other hand, that doesn’t take away from the fact that these images will be her copyright. That’s one for the lawyers I suspect!

And talking of lawyers, what of digitised versions of images that are definitely out of copyright? The considered opinion (thanks to @copyrightgirl on Twitter for bringing me up to speed on this) is that for a copy of an old image to have its own copyright protection it will depend on how much “originality, skill and judgment goes into the digitisation process”. This has been established in the US by the Bridgeman case, but is totally untested in UK law.  So, whilst I like to think I have put a certain amount of skill and judgement into the digital versions of my images, maybe I don’t have any rights with them anyway? But doesn’t it all just boil down to plain old common decency in the end?

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