When Is It OK To Lift An Image?

A friend’s link on Facebook took me to Jezebel.com; the October 5th entry featured images of Mariah Carey:

Censorship is prevalent in Saudi Arabia, and someone has collected photos illustrating all the ways Mariah Carey has been covered up.

The link in the lede — which is repeated at the bottom of the article — is to a page with an Arabic title; it was posted at ibrii.com, a Posterous-like site (“with ibrii you can snip everything you see from a webpage and share it instantly with your friends”). Based on this graph, you’d be excused if you thought the Arabic writer was the first to post the pictures; they were posted two days ago.

The poster’s article has 694 Facebook likes at the moment; the Jezebel article has 948 Facebook likes. These thumbs up are translating to money (eyeballs) for somebody.

However, Jezebel also links to a UK site at the foot of the article. The UK article was published a month ago — September 2nd — and it asserts that “Saudi Arabia’s Photoshop Council Of Faith and Morals has altered Mariah Carey’s album covers to make them less sexy.”

Jezebel is a Gawker property. Gawker is a profit-driven company; its stable of sites drew 360 million visitors in 2009. Gawker licenses its original content “under a Creative Commons License permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution.” However, this was not original content.

The U.K. site, anorak.co.uk, is also part of a publishing stable. It retains copyright: “All copyright within the website is owned by Anorak UK Ltd and its licensors. All rights are reserved.” Jezebel could be violating Anorak’s copyright claim if it were valid, which it’s not.

The site Jezebel linked to in its lede got its images from the ArtsySpot image server. Like Anorak, ArtsySpot  posted its article with images on September 2nd. The ArtsySpot writer expressed a moderate amount of skepticism:

Saudi Arabian versions of Mariah Carey’s album covers have been retouched to be less sexy. Some say it’s fake as the source of these pics is not clear and they could have been created by any photoshopper… So if you’ve got some info about these modified album covers, don’t hesitate to share it.

Like Jezebel and Anorak, ArtsySpot is also a money-making site (ie, they run ads). It explicitly disavows copyright, freely admitting that it is lifting content:

Artsyspot.com does not claim to own exclusive rights on all images and videos published. All sources we use to create our articles are and will be credited with a proper linkback. However, we are hosting a lot of uncredited material from unknown authors we received via mails, from friends and our readers. If you own copyrights to some material such as images or data and you want us to remove it from our pages, contact us to claim your ownership and we will either credit you and your website, or if you wish – completely remove the content.

However, in the case of the Mariah Carey images, ArtsySpot did not contain a “linkback” nor was there a credit line.

Here’s the current timeline:

  • Sept 2 – Anorak publishes images and claims copyright
  • Sept 2 – ArtsySpot publishes images and admits it could be violating copyright; it does not follow its own guidelines and link to the source of the images
  • Oct 4 or 5 – someone clips the images from ArtsySpot to ibrii.com
  • Oct 5 – Jezebel runs the story, 11:55 AM Eastern

My heartburn with ArtsySpot, Ibrii and Jezebel is this: the authors did not excerpt. In effect, they did a copy&paste. If Anorak was the first site to run these image, these subsequent sites have deprived Anorak of eyeballs and, thus, ad revenue.

This seems morally wrong. If a student did this, I would explain the concept of intellectual property and fair use and suggest the student perform an excerpt-and-link. I would have also given a mini-lecture on credibility.

It turns out the Anorek and Jezebel writers would have been wise to simply type <Mariah Carey Saudi Arabia> into Google (as a string, not a phrase). In December 2005 (yes, almost five years ago), the MuseumOfHoaxes ran the images and questioned their veracity. MediaBum ran them with no caveats in 2006. MetaFilter (“appear genuine”) in April 2007. Thfire also ran them on September 2nd (with no credits).

But lo and behold, Google turned up something else. E! also ran these images on October 5th, 1:20 PM PDT– long after Jezebel resurrected this meme. Much longer narrative; continued assertions that these are accurate (without sources). Oh. And another claim of copyright: “Copyright 2010 E! Entertainment Television, Inc. All rights reserved.”

So these English-speaking gossip sites are generating traffic by recycling “news” about something that might or might not have happened in Saudi Arabia at least five years ago. And in so doing, some are also claiming copyright to images that they have lifted from the (not public domain) Internet.

No wonder my students look at me and go “huh?” when I try to explain intellectual property and crediting sources. Digital literacy: it’s not just for millennials.

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