Stealing Versus Using

Last week, Matt at posted what became a rather provocative article on the ethics of appropriating photography. It generated dozens of comments and a hundred emails--so much so that he has since removed the post. The gist was this: without asking, crediting, or paying for them, Alameda appropriated Matt's photos for their commercial website. Many (all?) remain. It's not surprising that they would do this; Matt's an amazing photographer who is preparing a book of his work.

We live in a world where you can easily snatch a pic or bloc of text and post it on your own site. In some cases we regard this as appropriate, and some cases theft.

This is an example of theft.

I'm not a lawyer and I make an ethical point. My guess is that the law is also on Matt's side on this one (if not the lawyers), but let's not go down that road. We don't need to make a legal case here, just a clear ethical one. Here's how I would characterize it. As a society, we want to strike a balance between encouraging creative innovation and the exchange of information and discouraging the practice of profiting off someone else's work. Bloggers steal profligately from other sites, quoting and using pictures. I regard this as a fair use under certain circumstances: attribution and (where possible) links must be provided when appropriating someone's work. And the use must be non-commercial; that is, you shouldn't be using it to turn a buck. From time to time, I want to grab a picture off a site like Flickr, and when I do, I cite the photographer and link back to the picture I used. Although it's never happened, I'd pull the picture anyone requested that.

But a business is a whole different ballgame. Alameda wanted to use Matt's photography to sell their product. Matt will receive no payment for these profits. Even more egregiously, Alameda didn't cite Matt as the photographer. This falls squarely in the category of exploitation. The ethics are made no worse by virtue of Matt's intention to use his photography in a book, but it's worth noting that it does downgrade his own product. Ethically speaking, stealing is stealing, and stealing from a point-and-shooter like me is just as bad, even though I suffer no additional harm by the degredation of my product. But it does doubly screw Matt.

Alameda should rectify this immediately. Having already used the photography, they owe Matt money along with an apology; simply removing the photos isn't adequate compensation. If they want to keep using the photos, they need to strike a deal with the photographer.

For reasons I don't understand, Matt has removed his original post, which is of course his prerogative. But let's not forget the issue or overlook bad behavior. Alameda needs to make things right. And for other breweries who might wish to scoop up pictures or text from bloggers, a handy tip: just email us and find out whether it's okay. It's not rocket science, just good manners.

[Update. Looks like Matt and Alameda have come to (are in the process of coming to, something) a meeting of the minds, so the above case should probably just be regarded as an example. And boycotts, blood vendettas, and so on can be revoked.]