I shall unburden myself this month by confessing to a past (though no less alarming) professional transgression and expose you, dear reader, to the very same charge at the same time: we are complicit in the appropriation of images without crediting the proper owners, arbiters, and originators.
We do this (and succeed) because our celebration of the written word is often eclipsed by an insatiable infatuation with the image.
You’ve seen the evidence: well-meaning invitations and event posters, overcrowded institutional and organizational pamphlets, subtle omissions on television, overlooked citations in print media, and rather obvious borrowings to outright theft on the web — and yes, even in course outlines and materials.
All of this (particularly that last point) is rather unfortunate because it breaches the protection of intellectual property rights and threatens academic honesty.
Two types of online resources may help rein in this problem. The first resource is Creative Commons. Founded by law professor Lawrence Lessig and two partners in 2001, Creative Commons provides rights holders with the option of “opening” their content to users in a variety of ways, from specific conditions of use to no conditions at all.
Readers of ActiveHistory.ca, for example, will note that all of the content offered herein may be distributed and adapted as long as you attribute the site and its authors; and further, that you agree to not profit on said distribution or adaptation, and reissue any resulting work under the same license.
So, what does this have to do with images and where we get them from?
These licenses invert traditional conventions by preemptively dictating more elaborate and alternative forms of use. Take the Library of Congress’ efforts to “open” parts of the image collection to users through Flickr, for example — a site that has these licenses built in. Not everything is available, but enough to make using items from this collection — and not just random, unattributed images from a Google search — both effortless and efficient.
The Obama Administration’s decision to upload and curate an archive of the forty-forth president of the United States is a pretty clear indication of the potential applications of these licenses. In fact, this archive may be something of a historical first: where a world leader allows an extra level of access, even permitting further use of those images. These images remain beyond his control but still within his control at the same time.
The second group of resources are websites that offer a specific micro-function like TinEye.com. This site describes itself as a “reverse image search” and can be used to locate the origins of image files you may have acquired but have failed to locate. This could also be used to locate all other sites that are using the image.
With the App-store rush to create micro-sites like this, new services appear almost daily. TinEye.com has been around for a few years but the most recent service that comes to mind is YouTube Time Machine — which allows you to pinpoint specific video content by year.
It’s not finished and not even directly useful just yet — but it certainly has a lot of potential. Just think of what you could do with a video archive at full capacity.
INSPIRATION BY ANY OTHER MEANS
I can’t seem to shake this phantom sensation that I’ve written this before. Or that I read it somewhere before. Maybe I did. And maybe you wrote it. I can’t recall.
And that’s the point, really.
Being inundated with more and more information is not unlike a perpetual search for a certain pair of car keys — keys to a car you can’t quite remember acquiring, let alone fathom where you might have parked it.
It can be difficult to remember and account for the origin and source of all the content that passes through your brain, let alone the inspiration that led you to seek out certain kinds of information in the first place — all within a daily communion with the great collective unconscious called the Internet, which produces and reproduces mass volumes of information daily.
I find this situation frightening and I don’t have any solutions. But I do know that citing everything we can — including images — helps us distinguish between malicious intent and inspiration by any other means.
While I’ve focused on images, this discussion could include film clips (or movies) by extension. These are likely to become searchable in future, as the existence of YouTube Time Machine certainly suggests.
A.J. Rowley is currently completing his MA in History at Trent University that examines the Canadian media reaction to the Cuban Revolution. More of his writing can be found at http://www.ajrowley.org/