Intellectual property rights laws damage our society
Saturday, February 15, 2014
Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Since 2010, I have maintained a website that was a collection of photos of libraries around the world. These mostly focused on home libraries but also included libraries in 25 other categories, including academic, subscription, corporate, church and national libraries, as well as libraries portrayed in art, film and on bookplates.

I got hundreds of visitors each day and often heard from library lovers on every continent how much they enjoyed the site or how it helped them in designing their own modest home library rooms.

But after reading several blog posts about the legal dangers of using copyrighted photos, I decided, with much sadness, that I could not leave myself open to costly lawsuits that are becoming more prevalent over the issue of sharing images online. Last week I removed nearly every page from my site.

Of course, I knew that online images are copyrighted, but I guess I assumed, like many others must do, that since millions of other people share images using Pinterest, Facebook and photo sharing sites, that there must be some kind of “fair use” provision that allows to people to share photos as long as they attribute them and don’t sell them, or something along those lines.

But apparently I was completely mistaken.

Even though:

  • I always cited the sources of images (photographer when known)
  • I never made any money from sharing them
  • I would immediately have removed an image or corrected an erroneous source if requested
  • I resized the photos to smaller, low-resolution sizes
  • I was engaging in artistic criticism of the libraries, evaluating and offering comments about what was successful and what could be improved, which for printed materials would be covered under “fair use” laws

Apparently these steps would not be enough to protect me from unscrupulous legal trolls looking for quick settlement money, according to several alarming blog articles written by unfortunate bloggers who had been sued. There are image copyright lawyers who pay people to use software to find copyrighted images that have been shared by bloggers or on photo sharing sites. They send out masses of legal notifications and are allowed to sue you for up to $150,000 (although the trolls are usually willing to settle for $5,000 or so, plus there's your attorney costs).

This is even if no economic harm was intended or done, whether you were aware of the laws, or whether you were first notified to remove the images or not. "Fair Use" does not apply in the case of sharing internet images.

Our over-strict laws, in fact, have made criminals of millions of people who share images online.
Sadly, these laws prevent people from freely sharing beauty with others.

But the internet exists to share ideas and photos (originally pornographic photos), and it seems to me that if you don’t want people to share your ideas or images, you shouldn’t post them online.

I’ve seen blogs with all-caps warnings: “NO PINTEREST! THESE ARE MY IMAGES. RESPECT MY RIGHTS.” There is something truly ugly and ungenerous about “sharing” pictures of your garden on your blog – but not really sharing them, because you’re tightfistedly forbidding others to further share them.

But this is simply one more area in which “intellectual property” laws have been expanded far beyond their original intent and are now inhibiting the very progress they were instituted to encourage, as well as promoting abuse and rent-seeking behavior.

I have come to believe that IPR laws are not only not necessary in a free society, but in fact are harmful on the whole. My next column will cover the philosophical and practical reasons for reducing or eliminating these laws.

Perhaps one day we will live in a world where people will not be afraid to share ideas or photos under threat of bankruptcy or criminal prosecution, but that day has not yet arrived. Pinterest users, beware.