On May 9, Shanelle (@seeshanelle) asked on Twitter whether “pictures not mine” is a proper attribution for photos and images used in aesthetic posts. Last time I checked, 25% of 48 respondents said that it was.
This is a shocking answer coming from the book blogging community, a place where people value intellectual and creative property and generally agree that plagiarism is a no-go. Shannelle wonders if people are accepting of this type of attribution because they can’t put a face to the photographers in the same way they can put a face to book bloggers who have been plagiarized. I wonder if the problem is that we aren’t clearly seeing the relationship between images and words and how both are creative property.
Proper Crediting Means Using a Specific Name
I partially understand why people think it’s acceptable to use images they find online, with proper credit to the owner. (It’s not, but we’ll get to that.) I never thought, however, it would be necessary to to clarify that a proper credit means actually naming the owner/source of the image.
“Credits” of the type Shannelle mentions are relatively common. “Photo not mine.” “Image from Google.” “Credit to original owner.” These types of disclaimers sprinkle the Internet. Yet what does it mean? Essentially nothing, beside the fact the photo isn’t yours, and it belongs to…someone. This is why this type of “credit” is acceptable nowhere else, not in academia, not in book blogging, and it’s not acceptable here.
imagine turning in an essay for school, and in the Works Cited entry you write “book from the library.” That’s where you found the book; it’s not giving credit to the author. Your instructor would never accept this as passable academic work. Yet this is the written equivalent of saying “photo from Google” because Google didn’t take the photograph.
Now imagine taking this blog post from Pages Unbound and reposting it on your blog. You don’t link back. You don’t credit “Briana from Pages Unbound.” You simply take this post and at the end put a disclaimer that says “words and ideas not mine.” The blogosphere would be in an uproar because this is clearly stealing. And it is the equivalent of taking a photo and putting a caption that says “image not mine” because you didn’t really try to credit the creator at all.
Yet Proper Crediting Doesn’t Always Mean You Can Use Someone’s Work
There are laws that limit the ways you can use other people’s creative work, as long as it’s still under copyright, and those laws apply equally to images and to words. Correctly citing a photo or a piece of text doesn’t necessarily mean you can do whatever you want with it. This is important to know because people have been sued to for using images that didn’t belong to them. You don’t want to be one of those people.
Let’s move back to texts. Think about school again. Fair academic use usually means you can quote part of a text in your own writing. That’s why you can quote Moby Dick in your essay for college. You cannot, however, copy all of Moby Dick and say you are quoting it. Now, that may sound absurd because Moby Dick is notoriously long–but it applies to all writing. For example, you also cannot quote the entirety of a poem in your work if that poem is still under copyright; you can only quote part of it. This is actually a huge hurdle for professional academics who want to publish scholarly articles about modern poetry; they need to get permission to quote most of the poem in their own work. Giving the poem a proper citation in the Works Cited just doesn’t cut it legally.
The same is true for blogging. Imagine now that you repost this entire post on your own blog and you do link back to Pages Unbound. That still doesn’t make it okay because you do not have my permission. You have stolen my work and possibly my page views and followers. People are now going to your blog to read my work.
This is why even crediting the owner of a photo does not necessarily make it ethical or legal. You are taking the whole of their work–the whole photograph–and putting it on your blog. It devalues the photo because people no longer have to go to the owner’s website to see it; they just have to go to yours.
So Ask for Permission
The problem with the Internet is that “sharing” has become normalized. Sites like Pinterest, for instance, encourage reposting of other people’s images. Photographers often actually don’t mind if people repost their work, and this makes it confusing when other photographers do mind and try to enforce their copyright. So the safest thing to do? Never assume.
Always ask the owner of an image if you can use it. Get the permission in writing. It can be informal, like a tweet saying “yes,” but make sure you have proof and can pull it out should someone ask. And if you don’t know who owns the image, don’t use it. One of the complications of people’s lack of citation is that it’s often very difficult to find the original owner. Don’t assume because someone else stole the photo that you can. Let it go and find another image to use.
You wouldn’t steal someone’s writing and post it on your blog with the vague statement that “These words aren’t mind.” So don’t do it with images.