“Stealing” Images on the Internet

By: Steve Outing

If you have image loading turned on in your Web browser while reading this column, you should see an image of McGruff the Crime Dog.

This image does not reside on the server that hosts this column; rather I’ve embedded a simple link to another server and incorporated someone else’s photo into my own Web page layout. When you requested this column from the mediainfo.com server, your browser pulled in the layout and text from mediainfo.com and retrieved the photo from another server.

Is it legal to do this? Sure. Is it ethical? If I had not asked and received permission to do so, no.

McGruff is in the space above because of an amusing — but nevertheless important — episode reported by Al Wirtes, publishing systems manager of the Post-Tribune in Gary, Indiana. Wirtes is a fan of the group Soul Asylum and he maintains an unofficial fan page for the band. (This web page is no affiliated with the newspaper; Wirtes maintains it as a hobby.)

Recently, Wirtes stumbled upon a Web page produced by a Chicago-area weekly magazine that included an interview with the band. On the page was a link to Wirtes’ Soul Asylum fans’ page, which he welcomed. But also on the weekly’s page was an image — a scanned version of an album cover that had been manipulated extensively using Photoshop — lifted from Wirtes’ Web page. As I have done with the McGruff image above, the weekly embedded a link in its own pages that pulled Wirtes’ image from his server and inserted it into the interview page.

Comments Wirtes: “This, I feel, has gone too far. It is one thing for a commercial entity to link to your page without telling you (which is merely a minor breach of etiquette), and quite another issue for them to use someone’s original artwork without permission. In cyberspace, this may not be illegal, but it is rude beyond measure. … The truly insulting part was that the page was copyrighted by the author, and right in the middle of the copyright line, he offered a mail button to mail him for ‘permissions you might want.'”

Since linking to other people’s sites is common practice on the Web, is this sort of behavior legal? This is one of those issues that will likely be decided in the courts in the coming years, as more people and publishers use the Internet and the World Wide Web. In the Wirtes example, it’s a breach of etiquette. But what if that same publication had linked to a copyrighted image (labeled as such) on a site operated by the New York Times, including the image in its own Web page presentation and not crediting the Times? The Times might have grounds to take legal action against the publisher (though in practice, a simple letter from a company lawyer would probably straighten out the matter).

Protecting copyrighted materials that have been placed on the free-wheeling World Wide Web is, of course, a serious concern for publishers. Because once you put your material on the Web, it’s a simple matter for anyone else to “borrow” it — with or without your permission. The wire services face this problem, and there is yet no elegant technical solution.

For example, take a newspaper Web site that pays for the rights to include New York Times News Service content on its online service. A colleague at NYTNS told me that he occasionally runs across Web sites that have a link to “News from the New York Times News Service” — but what they are actually doing is linking to another news site that pays for the rights to reproduce NYTNS material online. The “freeloader” usually gets a call asking them to remove the offending link, and an offer to pay for providing NYTNS content online.

The best way to deal with such transgressions is the simplest: make a phone call to the offending party or have your lawyer send a letter asking them to desist. Wirtes opted for a more creative approach:

“Since they had not actually stolen the artwork, but only linked to it from their page into my home directory, all I had to do was replace the artwork in question (residing on my server) with something else of my own design,” Wirtes said. “Any artwork that I placed in my directory with that name would be placed on their interview page for all the world to see. … You don’t stumble across power like this everyday.”

That’s why McGruff the Crime Dog is at the top of this column. When a Web user visits the weekly magazine’s Soul Asylum interview page, they see McGruff. Wirtes said earlier this week that he has not heard from the weekly, and McGruff is still showing up on its interview page. Apparently, the weekly magazine’s editors haven’t noticed Wirtes’ retaliation for breaching Web etiquette.

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This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

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