My Adventures With Wikipedia, Copyright, Photography

I like Wikipedia. I use it a lot. But if you try to do something with Wikipedia besides simply look at an article, sometimes it is a giant pain in the ass.

Seven or eight years ago, I was browsing Wikipedia and looked up a lesser-known author I like. The article was contributed by a young Australian who had written a number of Wikipedia entries on a variety of topics. The article I read was full of misinformation; I never looked at any of the others she wrote. (I think it is much more difficult for this kind of contributor to create an entry now.) I thought it important that my writer have an accurate Wikipedia article so I thought I’d re-write it. It took me a while — Wikipedia has its own system of coding that has little to do with HTML — but it got done. Then the fun began.

First, there were the busy-bodies, busy busy all the time, who came in to “correct” this or that. I left all the grammar and style corrections — possibly they were improvements — but reverted one or two changes of factual material that were wrong, explaining this in the place provided to give reasons for an edit. Next came the spoofers and vandals, who wanted to turn the entry into their own private joke. (I am not naming the subject of my entry so as not to attract griefers who might think it a challenge.) Most of these malicious changes were caught quickly, sometimes in a few minutes, by Wikipedia editors on the prowl, bless ’em. The entire process was a fairly positive experience, though so time-consuming that I have never tried to write another entry from scratch, though I have added material to other articles from time to time.

An article on the Vancouver Canucks failed to mention that their first few seasons in the NHL were marred by the prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment of their owner. I have a special interest in criminal hockey owners and a particular interest in the Canucks, so I added that info, with footnotes, of course. Someone deleted it. So I reverted it. For a while my words stood, then someone chopped off a phrase and took a footnote with it. I repaired the notation, but left off the phrase. This repair took place some while after the chopping. I don’t go to Wikipedia daily nor do I keep track of my entries. I just check on them once in a great while to make certain they are still there.

One reason that I began this blog was to write without having to worry that my stuff was being edited or re-written without my approval, as was the case with Wikipedia. The posts here are personal and I can be a bit loose about my approach. One category that received a new post every month was Pictures I Like. The subject was a photo that I found striking for some reason or other and some background on the picture. This was a fairly popular feature here and some of these posts — such as the one on Grand Central Station — are still being discovered and linked by other bloggers.

Then, early last year, I got an e-mail from Stuart Franklin about a photo that was reproduced in the post Pictures I Like: Tankman. Franklin was somewhat exercised that I had used this photo not simply because it was copyright violation but because it was not at all a good picture that he had taken, it had technical flaws and so on. But he was also miffed because, 2014 being the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, he hoped to get some reprinting of the photos that he had taken that day and smuggled out of China, including one that won a World Press Award. Franklin is a professional (Magnum!) photographer, after all; this is his livelihood. I understood this and removed the picture from this site. Then I got another e-mail from Franklin: the photo was still up — on Wikipedia!

So I checked out Wikipedia and there was the photo in the “Tank Man” article. And it was credited to this blog which is how Franklin came to associate me with it. So I edited the article by removing the photo.

And then somebody put it back.

Now began some rather frustrating correspondence with a busy bee on Wikipedia, an increasingly perturbed Stuart Franklin, and myself. The busy bee was a helpful type who thought, he said, that republishing the photo was Fair Use, although, of course, he was not a lawyer. Franklin had written to Wikipedia himself and Busy Bee had taken it on himself to move Franklin’s correspondence to a different niche in the vast Wikipedia morass of places where things can be stored. He was only trying to help, he said, because he knew Wikipedia could be daunting to the uninitiated. Meanwhile, the photo was being considered for deletion by Wikipedia editors, though this proved to be a rather lengthy process.

Then, Franklin re-examined the photo and discovered that he hadn’t taken that particular picture! No wonder it was technically deficient. So, back to Wikipedia with this info (which created some more editorial discussion about who the photographer actually was). And Franklin e-mailed me a JPEG of a photo that he did take and which might be used by Wikipedia. So, I made that edit to the Tank Man article. Also I changed the file name on the several instances where the non-Franklin photo included his name, though I could not get them all.

Now everything was quiet for a time.

In December of 2014, I got a message from a Wikipedia user that the photo I had forwarded from Franklin had been “orphaned” and would be deleted. I found that curious as the photo was still quite visible in the Tank Man article. I looked at the photo history and saw that the user who had e-mailed me had changed the size of the picture and now his name was there as the photo source. That’s okay by me. You enjoy, Dude!

Over the course of this affair, I gave a lot of thought to how I should handle pictures on this site. The photo that I used, wrongly attributed to Franklin, was floating around on the internet and I carelessly scooped it up. One other time I got a smack on the wrist for using photos on this blog that were not properly attributed to the photographer. The place where I had gotten the pictures had not given the correct source. I was happy to make the change and give credit where credit is due, but that really doesn’t answer the questions that arise here.

Photographers create works that can easily be digitally copied and distributed. The final distinction between the original and a copy is disappearing along with chemical/film processing. So, once a photo appears on the internet, it loses commercial value. Of course, photography is not the only form to suffer difficulties from new technology: music, print publishing, movies and video — all are going through changes, but photography has been there from the beginning. Or at least, from the moment that it was possible to digitally reproduce images. Pornography was the original internet business opportunity because an image was something that could be sold on-line.

It is now so difficult to protect image copyright that some photographers are quitting. Watermarks are not the answer. If an image is published, the publisher will want it pristine, and, since print newspapers and magazines are dying, the internet is now the major place to publish. But once published, the image leaves the control of both publisher and photographer. Indeed, there are predatory photographers and graphic artists who steal the work of others and put their own name on it.

So, how to steer through all this? I have been trying to develop a publication code for myself, basically a set of personal rules that are under constant scrutiny and re-thinking. After all, I don’t want to do blog posts without pictures — they are, like this post, boring to many. Anyhow, pretty soon I hope to do another Pictures That I Like post.

 

 

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