Clearly crossing a fuzzy line

Last week I blogged about intellectual property in general and the theft of photographs in particular. The line between the borrowing of ideas and concepts, verses actual stealing of intellectual property can occasionally be fuzzy. But the thefts I was writing about were clearly over that line. In writing that blog, I was prompted to think about my own borrowing/appropriating/reusing.

Last week’s blog referred to a Tumblr (Stop Stealing Photos) that identifies photographers who use the work of other photographers and claim it as their own. The woman behind the Tumblr (Corey Balazowich) describes it as “a wall of shame dedicated to photographers that feel that it’s okay to steal others work and post it as their own.”

This kind of stealing has been in the news in the photography world recently because one workshop (Rob Adams) teacher borrowed, appropriated or stole the lessons of another workshop teacher (Adam Forgione.) See: Part of my hesitancy in adding to the discussion was because the teaching of process/craft in any medium involves similar/overlapping subject matter. Virtually every photography workshop teacher talks about exposure, aperture, shutter speed, etc., for example.

The stealing of workshop lessons seemed pretty egregious to me, doubly so since I would never want to be a victim of that kind of intellectual property theft. Though that thievery sounds pretty amazing and I followed that case, I was not compelled to blog about that. In the case of the thieves outed on the Stop Stealing Photos Tumblr, the stealing of whole images and the using them as one’s own is that much more obviously theft.

Having said all that, borrowing ideas is as old as human consciousness. I use quotes, with author credit, regularly in my public presentations. But I also use ideas, philosophies and perspectives that I have picked up along the way, more than occasionally without attribution, from those photographers who inspired me.

At one point I may even wanted to emulate them yet I would never overtly plagiarize their work. This prompted me to find a definition for plagiarism, as in “….the practice of taking someone elses work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own:” My “defense” against charges of plagiarism would go through my thinking process, which is something like this:

I encounter the idea. I roll it around in my head. I spit it back out in another form, occasionally fused with another idea making a new, hybrid idea which is what I use in my presentations.

In other cases I cut and paste a block of text from an on-line source, most notably Wikipedia for an image caption, for example. Invariably, it has too much information and is written in a stilted grammar, so I cut it way down keeping the facts, the spelling of the translations, etc.

In rarer cases, I attend a presentation or watch a video of such a presentation where I note a teaching technique or tid-bit of information on the creative process which I massage, knead and polish, until I can deliver it in my own language and plug it into my own presentations

That would be my defense if and when I am outed for “stealing” in the photo world.

The other reason I hesitate to jump into the discussion of most cases of intellectual property theft was my belief that I had little to add to the conversation. Recent egregious examples of plagiarism in the media (printed or on-line) offended me as much as the next person, but I am not sure what I could say that would add to the discussion.

In the case of the the Stop Stealing Photos Tumblr, I can add something.

I can write this to remind readers that it would be one thing if the thieves claimed they stole just the ideas from the victimized photographers. But this is something else, because these folks are literally stealing whole images and claiming them as their own, in venues where such a theft is both a crime and morally offensive.

That is the issue, the criminality that pushed me over the line.

The crime is fraud. The client who hires a photographer based on the work that said photographer did not actually create is being lied to, is being defrauded. When the client, who has been duped, pays the thieving photographer and then they are disappointed in the results, they lose.

But, I lose too. That disappointed client will forever blame all photographers for the fraudulent deeds of that one photographer. Similarly, the workshop teacher who steals the lessons of another photo instructor will be unable to deliver the kind of workshop experience that the student expects, leaving the workshop market with a population of students who feel ripped off by instructors who can not deliver. In both cases, the thieves have clearly crossed what I once thought of as a fuzzy line.

One response to “Clearly crossing a fuzzy line”

  1. all people who teach and/or present “borrow” ideas and material to some extent. There is, however a chasm of difference between finding a new way to use ideas inspired by others and instead lifting the presentation and methodology (and script) of someone else’s presentation or training; including telling the same exact jokes and anecdotes at the same points in the presentation.

    Rob Adams is apparently grossly guilty of the latter form of “mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery,” since he used the same verbatim explanations, anecdotes and jokes (in the exact same places in the presentation) teaching his classes as Forgione used (and still uses) in his classes.

    Some people don’t even bother bumping up against the fuzzy line but just leap over it to the dark side of purely ripping off someone else’s prior work.

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