Charles Arthur, What's the right way to talk about copyright stuff? (Guardian Technology, June 23 2008), asks, "How do you describe it when someone sells a photograph they don't have a right to?".
He is referring to the fact that "some people who had put photos on Flickr under a Creative Commons non-commercial licence found that they were being sold on eBay by someone who was claiming the rights to them".
Apparently not - and, judging by the responses to the article, using words like 'theft' and 'steal' clearly rub some people up the wrong way... "The photographs in question simply are not being stolen. They're being copied. No thieves in existence there, but copiers. Illegal copiers I'm sure...".
I have to confess that when I used to talk to my own children about illegally downloading music on the Web I tended to use the analogy of shoplifting, on the basis that each time they downloaded a track they would be denying a shop (and the artist) a sale . So what was their typical reaction? Basically, they thought I was completely mad (and they probably weren't wrong - either in the specific or general case!).
As ParkyDR says in a comment on the article: "Nothing has been taken, the original owner still has the photo, in this case even copying it was ok (CC licenced), the license was broken when the photo was sold".
Well, yes... but it still feels a lot like theft in many ways? As Nickminers says, "if you make money from a photo that was taken by somebody else, you have effectively stolen the money that the copyright holder should have earned from the sale".
Dvdhldn suggests using the phrase "copyright theft" as a compromise between "theft" and "illegal copying" which sounds reasonable to me. Whatever... the key point here is that I don't think many people would disagree that selling someone else's CC-BY-NC images without permission is wrong. The issue is only with what words we should use to label the activity.
So here's a less clear cut scenario... Brian Kelly tweeted the other day about a new competitor service to Slideshare called AuthorSTREAM. The new service looks interesting and offers some functionality not currently present in Slideshare, though I have to say I feel slightly uncomfortable about how far the new service has gone to make itself look and feel like the original.
But the service itself isn't the issue. Brian also noticed that someone had taken copies of a large number of old UKOLN Powerpoint presentations and uploaded them to the AuthorSTREAM site. I took a look for my own presentations and sure enough, a few of those uploaded were mine.
Hmmm... that's a little annoying. Or is it? No, perhaps not - there's no attempt at passing these presentations off as being by someone else so perhaps it is just good visibility. On the other hand, I know of at least one case where the continued availability of old, technically out of date, material on the Web does more harm than good and I'd prefer to be in control of when I publish my own crap thank you very much.
So, it's not clear cut by any means...
I also noticed that one of my more recent presentations has been made available, uploaded by someone called 'Breezy' and labeled on AuthorSTREAM as andy powell presentation, though the original on Slideshare is called The Repository Roadmap - are we heading in the right direction? This is more frustrating in a way. The presentation is already available on the Web in a very accessible form and someone else uploading it to a different service just waters down the Google juice of the original. That's downright unhelpful, at least from my perspective. If Breezy had asked, I'd have said no and asked him or her to link to the original.
Now, I must stress that Breezy has done nothing legally wrong here. The original presentation is made available under a CC-BY licence (at least that was what I intended, though I've just noticed that in fact, on this occasion, I forgot to add a CC licence until just now!). So in some sense, I am explicitly encouraging Breezy to do what he or she has done through my use of open licences.
But supposing Breezy had taken all of my presentations from Slideshare and replicated them all on AuthorSTREAM. Would that have been OK? Again, according to the individual licence on each presentation Breezy would have done nothing wrong - at least, not legally. But morally... that seems like a different kettle of fish? At least from my point of view.
It's frustrating because what I really want is a licence that says, "you can take this content, unbundle it, and use the parts to create a new derivative work but you can't simply copy the whole work and republish it on the Web unchanged" and more fundamentally, "you can do stuff with the individual resources that I make available but you can't take everything I've ever created and make it all available at a new location on the Web wholesale".
The bottom line is that there's a difference between making a new, derivative work and simply copying stuff.
Enough said... at the end of the day Creative Commons licences are the best we've got for making content openly available on the Web and in those few cases where things go a bit wrong I can either learn to live with it or try to resolve the situation with a simple email.