With SOPA and PIPA making news this week, it’s all too timely to bring up a brief discussion about copyright.  I was 100% against these measures because they lacked the necessary protections of due-process…all it takes is an accusation to bring down an entire server, a server which could house dozens or hundreds of unrelated websites.  Never-mind whether the accusations are even true.
That said, copyright is some pretty serious business.  What people don’t realize is that some of the aquarium industries most valuable photographers are actually reducing what they publish because rip-offs are simply too prevalent.  To date, there have been only three people here in my home shooting high-quality photography of the Lightning Maroon Clownfish.
First is Tony Vargas.  He shot for over an hour, to the point of almost ignoring the other 16 tanks in my house!  Tony takes copyright so seriously that he releases few if any images from his work, and when he does, he’s forced to watermark right over the subject,  like this:

It’s a shame that Tony must do this, as a watermark is, in my opinion, very obtrusive.  However, Tony has been driven to this as a stern measure to help enforce the copyright over his work.  You (the vague, amorphous, internet community at large) are to blame.

Marc Levenson has been here too and photographed the Lightning Maroon.  It’s fair to say that Marc shares my dislike of watermarking over a photographs subject.  So instead, he places a photo credit within the picture, but off to the side or bottom so it doesn’t interfere.  For example, this:

Better yes, but certainly such a mark is easily cropped off this image.  I implemented such an image strategy in an earlier business, and routinely found my images being used by my competitors to sell competing products….they’d just cut off the watermark and use the image as if it was their own.  Policing this was a nightmare.  I invested thousands of dollars to create this photography to sell my products and they’re stealing it and underselling me.  You bet it drove me insane.  It was HIGHLY wrong and quite illegal to do what they were doing.

But in the end, I still did not choose to watermark my images as Tony had done.  So really, if I’m not going to watermark every image I put up here because I want this audience to enjoy unfettered images, what am I asking of you, the reader?

Well for starters, I’m asking you to not steal my images.  We’re not even through the first month of 2012, and I’ve already been notified of 2 unauthorized uses of my Lightning Maroon photography.  Certainly some of you may ask “what’s the big deal”?

First off, it’s because they didn’t ask.  Yes, often times all it takes is to say what image you want to use, why you want to use it, and often you’ll get positive response from the average photographer who isn’t doing it for a living.  Yes, Tony and Marc both gave their blessings for me to share their photography here on the website.

Of course, Marc and Tony were invited to my house.  They shoot photos of my property, without offering any compensation to do so, so there’s an understanding and respect there from the get go…i.e. I’d hope that these friends of mine would contact me and suggest me first if anyone came to them looking to license Lightning Maroon photography.  By the same token, Tony has one image that I’ve said “that’s the cover of my BOOK Tony, that’s awesome, and I’d hope he’d be kind enough to simply let me use the image gratis (since it is my fish in my tank afterall, shot with my permission)..but I’d still make sure he’s compensated in some way because man, a book cover of that caliber…he deserves it.

So yes, even with ALL of this “unspoken understanding”, I still showed my friends the courtesy of ASKING before using their images here on TLP.  And still, it’s important to note that technically, if Marc or Tony wanted to commercially use their photography of the Lightning Maroon in my home, they’d have to obtain a property release form from me in order to do so (and if I wanted to be a jerk, I could make them pay me for that release)- it’s that much more important because the Lightning Maroon is a one-of-a-kind, instantly recognizable fish that over time has also become synonymous with me.  Still, so much of this in the aquarium world functions on mutual respect and the understanding.  And despite that, every image I use in a story on Reef Builders is either creative commons, my own, or one that I’ve ASKED to use first.

But the fact that this month’s infringers didn’t ask to use my photography is almost trivial…in both cases this year if infringers had asked for permission, I would’ve said “no”, you can’t use this image in this manner.  But still, understand that I might say “yes” just as easily to some future inquiry, or I might say “for that use, I’d be willing to license the image”.

In the two cases this year, I didn’t get paid either way.  That’s theft.  Granted, I wouldn’t have offered to license these images either.  Doesn’t make it OK to steal them then.  If you can’t afford it, or it’s not available for purchase, theft is not the solution.  You’re not starving and my images are not a loaf of bread.

But the real conundrum here is that along the way, this iconic fish has become synonymous with my personal name.  So when someone uses my photography of a one of a kind fish that I own, people recognize it.  Instantly.  And I’ve found it directly associates back to me.

The use of my Lightning Maroon photography in commercial settings creates a connection between myself and the activities of the person who isn’t authorized to use the imagery in the first place.  It’s interesting because in both cases of infringement this month, I found out not by my own hand (it never happens that way) but because people contacted me to say “Hey, do you know this person that’s using the Lightning Clownfish in this way here on the internet?  What can you tell me about their product/service/business?”

Well guess what kind of response your business / project / service gets when I find out you’re stealing my photography and along the way, creating the illusion of an unspoken, unofficial endorsement by me?  Do you think I have glowingly wonderful things to say about you and your business?

I’m not going to go into the realities of copyright law here.  Yes, I’m trained in it; understanding copyright was crucial in my professional line of work.  Here’s the important pieces of advice, both for me, and in general:

  • If you’re re-posting a Lightning Maroon Clownfish image of mine on a forum or something to say “Hey, check out this new shot” and you attribute it to me and link to the blog, I’m not going to have a problem with that, I get that, and you’re not causing me any harm by doing that.  However…
  • If you find an image of the Lightning Maroon out there in any other capacity, that wasn’t published by me, a vendor who handled the fish (Pacific Aqua Farms, Blue Zoo Aquatics), or someone who’s known to have photographed the fish (Ret Talbot, myself, Marc Levenson, Tony Vargas, and soon to be Gary L. Parr), please let me know immediately as it is probably an unauthorized use.
  • The Lightning Maroon’s likeness will never be licensed out for use as part of any brand identity..i.e. you’ll never see a logo with the Lightning Maroon in it unless it’s something I’ve done, for me (i.e. if  I have babies to sell someday).  Anything even remotely commercial at this point,  chances are it’s unauthorized and I want to know about it.
  • If you want to use any images of the Lightning Maroon, in a commercial or journalistic setting, please ask first so we can discuss whether I’m comfortable with the use, and any potential licensing arrangement.
Some more general copyright advice:
  • Any image, text, etc, is covered by copyright the second it is created.  It does not require a copyright symbol, sign, watermark or any other notation to be copyright protected.  Just because it doesn’t say “Copyright Matt Pedersen 2012” on the image, doesn’t mean it’s not my image.
  • All you really need to know is a very simple test – if you didn’t create it yourself, and you didn’t license it from someone else who did, then you don’t have any claim of copyright on that work.  Using it in just about any setting could have you violating copyright.  Again, not going to get into “fair use” cases because frankly, in the aquarium hobby world and industry there aren’t many likely scenarios for a fair use claim to arise.
  • In general, if you’re just rumbling around the internet and find a picture you want to use for something, ask first.
  • If you don’t know who’s image it is, find out.
  • If you can’t find out, move on and find another image.
  • Or go find an image on Flickr that’s available for attribution only license via Creative Commons
  • Bottom line, real simple, if you want to stay above board, avoid public embarrasment, avoid nasty emails, and avoid a bad reputation, make it yourself.

It’s really simple folks.  Life is better for everyone if we respect the creative works of other people.  It costs real money and time to create and publish these works for you to enjoy.  It is one thing to share and attribute those works to promote them (although you’re probably still violating copyright law), but it is an entirely different story to use images in a commercial manner of any kind, let alone in a manner that appears to create an   endorsement or partnership where none exists.