I've spent a great deal of time on this blog, in classrooms, studios, lecture halls, and many other places advocating for the rights of creative professionals. I've engaged in respectful disagreements over the extent of those rights in courtrooms and at cocktail parties.
But until last weekend, I have never witnessed a professional businessman stand up in front of an audience (who paid a great deal of money to see him) and encourage those in attendance to use the creative work of others without permission, compensation, or even credit.
I was dumbfounded and offended.
When the words came out of his mouth, he looked right at me, laughed even, knowing what I do for a living -- knowing that it is my mission to educate artists and writers about their rights and how to enforce them so they can profit from their work.
I did not speak out at the time, but I did address the issue with him directly later. This is what I told him:
To: Mr. Professional Businessman
I want to share something that has been bothering me since Sunday. I don’t think you’re going to be surprised at what it is. I was extremely troubled when you stood up in front of a room of 50 people and advised them to steal the creative work of others in order to make their own.
At the end of June, my husband and I took a trip to Seattle. While we were wandering through the downtown commercial district, we saw a security guard physically assault a homeless man pushing him to the ground in front of a crowd of onlookers while berating and screaming at him to leave the area.
My husband and I did nothing. We stood mute in a mute crowd and let this bullying happen. We returned to our hotel and over a quiet glass of wine, we discussed what we had just seen and how it made us feel about ourselves – not living the values we believed we possessed. We decided that we would never let bullying happen again in our presence without standing up against it.
On Sunday, I was not about to call you out on your more than questionable position in front of your audience. The feeling I had about myself as I sat there and said nothing brought back the specter of how I felt about myself in Seattle. I cannot sit silently while you use your leadership role to encourage disrespect of artists and the law. I must tell you exactly how I feel, hoping that you will change your practice.
You are quickly becoming a leader in your industry, a viral industry. Your words spread more quickly than others and they have consequences. Quite frankly, I was rather astounded at the callousness you, as a creative professional, showed to other creative professionals by openly admitting copyright theft and parading your indifference to the rights and creative energies of others whose work you took and used.
I was sitting directly in front of you and perhaps that made you just slightly uncomfortable when you explained that you would take images from Google regardless of source or ownership for the sake of expediency alone. You attempted to justify your act by claiming that you get your work stolen all the time and you do nothing about it. Because, you say, the value in your work is about the experience of learning from you. And while a pirate may take your offerings, they can’t take you.
Well, the value of a visual artist’s, photographer’s, or graphic artist’s product is about visual impression – value that you inherently recognize when you take their work. But it is value that you don’t truly understand because you take it without permission or compensation, let alone credit.
You said you won’t get caught in the act of intellectual-property thievery because your slide decks are behind a pay wall. Let me just say that at some point, you will get caught. Your slide decks have been pirated. They are not all behind pay walls. There will be, at some point in your future, a visual artist who has the wherewithal to monitor and enforce his rights in his work.
Perhaps the consequences of being caught, say a $2500 settlement, is insignificant to you. But your students will get caught following your advice and methodology. And $2500 matters to them.
You are in business. Acquiring creative assets for your product offerings or your marketing is the cost of doing business (unless you use creative commons or royalty-free images of which there are many sources). If you cannot afford to acquire creative assets legally in your business model, then perhaps the business model needs to be changed.
You teach your strategies to hundreds of individuals. I implore you to teach legal acquisition of creative assets. Do not encourage your tribe to steal the creative work of others. It’s not just about the risk of getting caught, it’s about respect for other creative professionals and respect for the law.
I am unapologetically an advocate for artists who otherwise do not have a voice, for the creative professionals whose work has found its way into your slide decks without permission, compensation or credit. (To be clear, credit is not enough.)
I'm working hard to change the paradigm. I'd like creative professionals to become advocates for the protection of their own work. I'm tired of hearing, "Nothing can be done about thievery" on one hand, and "Nobody's going to catch me if I take and use this" on the other. Your message from the front of the room was both. I have a responsibility to correct what I see as an abuse of your power as an industry leader. With this letter, I am honoring my responsibility not to remain silent.
I believe that you have a responsibility to teach ethical and legal methodology.
His response was respectful. He acknowledged that his reference to pulling images from Google and video from Youtube was incomplete, that in fact he pays many thousands of dollars for the creation of original visual assets.
He discussed his knowledge of fair use and I agree that some use he makes of the creative work of others may be fair. But he went on to claim that he and his team use so many images in their presentations that it would be impossible to clear them all. That, I don't buy.
If it's not fair use and you haven't cleared the work, you should not use it. It's that simple to me. Workload notwithstanding.
Nothing was said about whether he would stop encouraging his students (who may or may not understand fair use) to rip creative work off of Google. In that, I am disappointed.
I am an advocate for creative rights. I take these things personally.
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