"You always can tell a thoroughgoing bastard when you see one"

I was all set to post up the eighth instalment of the One Cap Wonders series today, but other developments have pushed it aside. Namely, the ongoing saga regarding the use of images on the site.

Having arrived back home from work a couple of weeks ago I would find a rather grubby-looking envelope on my doormat, with a second-class stamp attached. Curious, I opened it and flicked through the pages to find myself staring at what was a familiar-looking image of Horst Hrubesch. Then I saw it: a letter from a photo agency I choose not to name demanding money for five images on the site.

Given the nature of the images, I was slightly put out to say the least.

Now, nobody in their right mind out there can or should defend copyright violation: photographers have done all the work and deserve to exercise the right to earn a living, after all. But by the same token we should expect to see reason take precedence over what many would consider an extremely litigious approach. There should be scope for all parties to establish some sort of background and discuss the issue, and the right path should be one of compromise and common sense.

If the unauthorised party is using the image for promotion, sales or any other money-making purposes, then there is no case to answer. On the other hand, if they are operating a non-profit making site dedicated to the purpose of distributing news or historical research, there should be at least some scope for discussion. How large are the images? How many are there? From where have they been sourced? Does their use really threaten the livelihood of the original source? I mean, let’s be serious here.

This is where the common sense factor comes in.

Yes, they are out there... The scourge of bloggers everywhere
Yes, they are out there… The scourge of bloggers everywhere

In my case, I found at least four of the five images on a third-party reference site based in South America where the author had painstakingly cobbled together head shots of every squad player in major international tournaments. All of these images were fairly small, and perfect for my idea to supplement the tournament squad lists on my site with little thumbnails that would remind readers of what these players actually looked like.

Perfectly aware of copyright rules and attempting to balance this against my trying to run a free information resource I did what many bloggers around the world would do: I right-clicked. However, in the spirit of “fair use” I ensured that the images were shrunk down appropriately. Now, “fair use” exists in United States law to protect those running information sites from litigious copyright sharks: it allows copyrighted images to be used to a limited extent, such as in the distribution of news or research.

This application of “fair use” tends to be a matter of polite convention elsewhere: so long as third parties are not displaying massive images, re-uploading entire photo archives or using copyrighted items as sales or marketing tools, many copyright owners tend to turn a blind eye. In those cases where they might be a problem, the usual action is a “take them down” demand – known as a “cease and desist” – while some owners are even prepared to accept a link back or supply a watermarked image instead. The last time I used a copyrighted image around a decade ago, it ended in my building a website for the photographer – and getting a stack of new images for free.

It is this application of common sense and simple reason that has allowed independent bloggers to make their mark on the Internet: can you imagine what would happen if every sports blogger and writer out there suddenly found themselves receiving nasty letters? Some of the best free resources on the web would disappear, and legions of excellent amateur writers would probably pack up and leave. We’d all be left having to put up with the scribblings of mainstream media hacks.

Have a look at all of those blogs you read. Sporting blogs. Automotive reviews. Fan sites. Blogs providing free and helpful advice. All written by people that are not journalists, people who write for the love of their subject. Now imagine if these people found themselves unable to provide an image to accompany their article. A car review without a suitable image of that car. A biographical portrait without an image of the subject. The Internet would suddenly become a monochrome place, with the sole exception of those factory-produced sites belonging to the large media agencies.

The letter I received was, in truth, never going to open the path to compromise. The statement of intent included a link to a past case, where a drugs charity that had used images taken from a Government-sponsored site – believing them to be crown copyright – found themselves having to pay damages to the photographer whose nose had been put out of joint. Rather than give ground – even the Department of Health had intervened on the defendant’s behalf – the photographer chose to see things through to the bitter end and take it to court.

Just reading the judgement makes me feel rather queasy: money-grubbing photographer in the red corner, a charity in the blue corner, and the judges giving the decision to the thoroughgoing bastard. We are really talking about the slime of humanity here. Now, my site is out there for the enjoyment of all and it is hardly providing potentially life-saving advice, but the principle is the same.

While many would choose to exercise common sense and fair play, there are the few shysters out there that build their reputation on being litigious. They chase old ladies posting up innocuous images of cats. They chase teenage girls posting images of their favourite actor or band. They chase independent sports writers using an image as a small 225px wide thumbnail and apply tactics that amount to little more than pure extortion. They have no desire for reaching a middle ground and couldn’t care less if you haven’t even visited their site: they simply want your money in their account.

Rather than issue a cease and desist order – in short, a simple demand to have the images removed – these individuals choose to invoke the strict letter of the law rather than a reasonable spirit. They are, quite frankly, thoroughgoing bastards.

In the case of this bunch of sharks that couldn’t even afford to send their mail first class, the label of “thoroughgoing” is richly deserved. In order to locate each of the small thumbnails, one would have had to trawl through almost five-hundred pages and click every single tiny 24px icon on the team list pages – a task, if you are not a genuine fan, that can only be described as terminally sad. I am actually imagining someone sitting behind a desk in their underpants going click, click, click, in the hope of finding that little nugget.

I had no choice but to pay these people, and in return I am going to pay this amount out of my own pocket – pretty much as you do when running a non-profit website. Visitors can of course help out by sending a donation. In return for your generosity I will promise that 50% of anything above the required amount will be sent directly to the Robert Enke Stiftung, a far more deserving cause than lining the grubby pockets of this miserable Schwein and his minions.

Finally, I will use this opportunity to all those other bloggers out there that might a copyrighted image innocently sitting in some obscure corner of their site (which probably means many if not all of you). Many of these images have been sliced, diced and redistributed over the years, and determining their source is not particularly easy. My best advice is to use something like Tin Eye to check the past history – the provenance, as it were – of any image, and then go the source website and double check. For those who focus on sites dedicated to past matches and players, I would suggest that you double-check your images now.

Having done a little web-based research on these individuals, I have discovered that they has chased people down for the smallest thing – including an otherwise meaningless avatar of an obscure Brighton & Hove Albion player from the 1980s. If he finds you, will get a letter from his organisation – which has the suitably appropriate acronym “ASP”.

Asps. Very dangerous.

“You always can tell a thoroughgoing bastard when you see one”
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