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Picture Post

Yesterday’s Technology Guardian led with an interesting article about picture agencies asking exorbitant fees from people whose web sites use their pictures without permission. The article makes it clear that in accusing the large agencies of bullying, it is not defending disregard of copyright. The objection is that the payments demanded are not proportionate to the fees that would be charged if the pictures were properly used, with permission; they are not even proportionate to the fines that might be imposed if the copyright breach went to court. The implication is that these are wild demands, issued in the hope that people will panic and pay up.

Part of the evidence for this is that in the majority of cases, the offending sites had been put together by small organisations with no real expertise, or even by volunteers. Most professional web designers – and that includes Cornwell Internet – know that copyright applies to the internet, and we take care to source our pictures legitimately. This can be frustrating: it isn’t always possible to find exactly what we need at a small fee or none, but professional fees can lift a site out of our customers’ budget.

We know about this from the other side of the coin, too, because the assumption that ‘if it’s on the web, it must be free’ does not just apply to pictures, and we sometimes have to contact people who have – sometimes with the best of intentions – reproduced one of a client’s (usually Julia Darling‘s) poems without permission. Yet copyright holders can be very generous if they are asked, and often agree to allow their words or pictures to be used for no more than an agreed acknowledgement. One project which really stretched Cornwell Internet’s skills was the adaptation of Valerie Laws’ poem Big Frocks which we commissioned for Durham Literature Festival in 2004: Valerie not only wrote us a wonderful poem, she also suggested accompanying visuals – and we were able to track down all the pictures we needed by asking permission of friends and strangers – and by rifling our own collection.

It is possible, then, to illustrate a web site without infringing anyone’s copyright; and I try to repay my debts indirectly, by making my own photographs available on Flickr under a Creative Commons licence which permits people to use them for non-commercial purposes, provided that I am properly credited, and that the pictures are not altered.

Which brings me to today’s conundrum. Coincidentally, while I was thinking about this, a request arrived in my in-box: would I allow one of my pictures to be used on the BBC’s GCSE Bitesize web site? Mostly I say ‘yes’ to these requests without a second thought: an organisation like The Folly Fellowship is very welcome to include my picture in its newsletter. But I was a little taken aback that the BBC doesn’t have the cash to pay for illustrations to its web site. I still want to abide by my existing Creative Commons licence, so, on reflection, what I will do is ask the BBC whether they think their proposal satisfies the terms of that licence.

And that’s what I will do right now…

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