A snapshot of Facebook's copyright controversy

Copyright abuse of photos is rampant across the internet. The likes of Facebook may be trying to police the issue, but are they part of the problem?

Have you ever posted a photo to Facebook without knowing who it belonged to? Or uploaded someone else's picture to a virtual pin-board? Have you started a blog that offers seemingly endless reams of stunning photography? If so, then it's likely you're in breach of copyright rules. Sites like Facebook layout explicit terms of use, such as:

“You will not post content or take any action on Facebook that infringes or violates someone else's rights or otherwise violates the law... We can remove any content or information you post on Facebook if we believe that it violates this statement or our policies.”

While on the one hand these rules are clear, on the other, the systems of the site make it as simple as possible to breach the rules. The Cool Hunter is an Australian design website that recently felt the wrath of the Facebook administrators when their page - with 800,000 fans - was shut down for copyright infringement. Tim Tikos, the site's founder, says that he was both angry and confused about a lack of clarity in Facebook's policies.

“I don't know what images are offensive or who is making claims. They won't communicate with us, it’s just cut and paste responses,” Tikos says.

“It’s like talking to a machine.”         

Tikos concedes that The Cool Hunter's Facebook page has been shut down a number of times previously for copyright infringement, but he argues that it is a heavy handed and uneven approach when this is the nature of photo sharing online.

 “This is what we do all day, we're not thinking about who owns the photo we're just sharing content.”

The Cool Hunter's Facebook page had offered full credit to any photographer who found their work had been featured without permission, but it seems the complainants went straight to Facebook.

“No-one ever knows what the original source is,” Tikos says.

“With photographers complaining about their photos being all over the net, I just say, well put your branding on your photos.”

Facebook is one of a growing list of social networks that thrive on the sharing of photos with Pinterest and Tumblr stating very similar terms of use that forbid copyright infringement. They also share clauses that grant the site, and its users, permission to share content between blogs and boards once it is uploaded, this seems to be an attempt to distinguish between copyright infringement and 'sharing'.

Mike Bowers is the photo editor for The Global Mail and as a producer of original content he sees no grey area in the need for a greater respect of copyright.

“The fact that everyone does it is not enough to allow people to ignore copyright. We need to build a greater intolerance to it and say this is not OK, people need to respect copyrights and moral rights.” he says.

Bowers is realistic about the impediments in chasing works used without permission, but he is resolute in the need for change.

“Once you actually press send and your images are sent into the digital badlands you've got no control over it,” he says.

“You need the resources to round up a legal posse and go after it, to chase down these things and I know I don't.... There needs to be a big test case and people need to lose a lot of money to hammer this home to the mainstream media,” he says.

While Facebook is making isolated attempts to shutter those breaching their rules, Bowers feels it is a grass-roots education campaign that is needed to bring about change.

“We need education in schools, we need to teach the kids that you can't steal because there will be repercussions and the repercussions are that, by taking away an artists ability to make a living out of their work, you reduce these original content makers to the class of amateurs, and that's not good for any of the creative disciplines at all,” he told Technology Spectator.

Every professional photographer that we spoke to for this story had had experience with finding their images online being used without their permission. Glenn Hunt is a well-established Brisbane-based photographer, he fears the complexity and sheer size of the networks makes personal enforcement of his copyright an impossible task.

 “I've found quite a few photos on Pinterest but the problem with that site is working out who pinned it first, it gets shared so many times I don't really know how to track it to some kind of source and then it becomes a question of how to contact them, it's a bit of a lost cause for me,” Hunt says.

Hunt is no stranger to the growing problem of copyright infringement. As the Director of an Australian photography agency he discovered that work submitted by Ben Ali Ong, a Sydney artist/photographer, was founded on photographs that were revealed as stock images sourced from photo agencies - Ong had claimed he had taken the photos.

The breach was shocking to Hunt and the Sydney art-world, who had held Ong in high esteem. This kind of mis-appropriation is well beyond the excuse of many social networks users who claim they have little understanding of the Facebook terms of use and that, with any website; they simple click through any legal sign-up process.

In the case of the Cool Hunter the breaches seem clear but as Tikos still argues that “we're not doing anything different to anything the everyday Facebook user is doing”.

It takes only the briefest scan of any number of the most popular Facebook pages to see rampant abuse of copyright rules.

If Facebook were to apply such diligent enforcement of their regulations on all of their users then they could lose a huge slab of their subscribers. The defence that, 'everyone is doing it' won't excuse a breach if Facebook decides to target you.

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