Better watch the licensing on those Catalyst conference shots…

Have you seen this?

Virgin Mobile in Australia created an ad campaign around a number of photos taken from Flickr. All of the photos were licensed for commerical use, but it seems that many of the photographers had no idea of what it means to allow commercial use of their photos, and what it specifically means to allow commercial use of photos of fellow humans.

The ad company took photos from and of regular people and added captions that implied often-derogatory situations, meant to resonate with ‘hip’ audience members. For example, the ad shown here is a picture of a young girl in a goofy pose flashing the peace sign, and the caption is ‘Dump your Pen Friend’. The link above is worth travelling to — because the very first comment on the picture is the young girl herself, having discovered that she is in the photo. The second comment is from the photographer, having discovered that his photo was used. The comment stream is enlightening.

Another affected party was geekgirl Molly Holzschlag, who was one of a group of people photographed in an elevator during what I presume to be a tech conference. Their photo was captioned “People who talk in lifts have bad breath”.

There is the beginnings of a collection of the various photos here. More discussion on the subject is here, here, and here.

There are all sorts of debates around this issue – but my personal favorite ironic conclusion is that anyone who wants to be litigious about this matter will mostly likely have to sue not just Virgin Mobile and/or the ad company, but also whatever close personal friend was uninformed enough to take a photograph of their friend(s) and then license it for commercial use without having understood the responsibilities and liabilities involved. Can Virgin Mobile successfully use their photographer-mules as shields to stay out of the court-room?

The other interesting question to me is — how does the world end up regarding companies that make this kind of ruckus? How will Virgin Mobile end up regarding their own campaign? This case has obvious educational value, both from a privacy perspective and also prospective amateur content license users — it is a use case that can be cited over and again, because people will intuitively get the issues at hand – after all, who hasn’t taken or posed for that one embarrassing photo. Meanwhile, Virgin Mobile Australia has managed to garner a world-wide audience for their ads. Perhaps the press is negative — but will the ruffled feathers fade away, leaving only the remembrance of the brand? My guess is that it will.

Photos on sharing sites such as Flickr are a simple example of one person having power over another person’s identity information. For obscure subjects, the power is small, and mistakes in things like licensing are not important. Yet – all it takes is a spotlight to change things. This isn’t new, or specific to Web 2.0 — how may recording artists have signed horrible contracts before they made it big, at the time just grateful to have the contract at all?

All I can say is, I’m off to check the licenses on a few photos that I really wouldn’t like to be part of a national ad campaign :)

2 thoughts on “Better watch the licensing on those Catalyst conference shots…

  1. I saw something elsewhere about this, too. It pointed out that they may have permission from the copyright owner (the photographer) due to the commercial use stuff, but since it’s a photograph of an identifiable person, a model’s release must also be obtained.

    Maybe things are different down under.

    Whatever, the lawyers will certainly find more work and billable hours for themselves.

  2. Yes, I think that’s the case — but the question is, is it the publisher’s responsibility to obtain that release or is it the photographer’s responsibility?

    My favorite summary of the situation was something to the effect of “it’s just enough of a grey area to make the lawyers start to salivate…”

    It will be interesting to see what the courtroom plays end up being.

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