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Blaming The Flickr API For Copyright Infringement?

from the APIs-don't-infringe-copyright,-people-do dept

The Fourth of July is over, but for some Flickr users the holiday's revolutionary spirit is still running strong. Apparently over the weekend a company called MyxerTones made Flickr's entire photographic catalog available for sale as cellphone wallpaper -- regardless of the license selected by each photo's owner.

For Jim Goldstein, a photographer affected by the violation, this was the last straw. He's posted a lengthy discussion of the issue in which he details other instances where his Flickr photos have been used without permission. Goldstein lays the blame at Flickr's feet, saying that their API and RSS systems suffer from "security holes" and don't properly protect users' copyrights. His post has attracted over 100 comments and nearly as many inbound links.

So what's the problem, exactly? In an early email to Flickr, Goldstein put it this way:

I want to be clear RSS feeds are not a problem for people to receive updates to view photos either in their RSS reader or through a web browser on their computer [...] Personally I like that Flickr provides tags as a means of searching and organizing. I have no problem with using this functionality for all uses other than the unauthorized publication of my work.

In other words, use of his work by RSS is fine, except when it isn't. How is Flickr supposed to know the difference? Well, it just is. And not by requiring Goldstein to mark his photos "friends only," mind you -- Goldstein doesn't want to lose the promotional value of Flickr's tag searches and RSS feeds. Flickr should know, somehow, that he doesn't mind users viewing his photos in their RSS readers, but does mind when they view them, via RSS, on Mac Mini connected to a TV that uses FlickrFan. Photos should be public, but not, you know, really public.

Needless to say, this is incoherent. If your work can be viewed on a computer it can also be copied -- and, in fact, already has been. And, if the copier so desires, they can then reuse it. It's sweet of Flickr to implement tricks like their one pixel overlays, but only a fool would think they stop any but the laziest and most insignificant pirates.

Does Flickr's API make unauthorized use of copyrighted material easier? Sure. But it doesn't fundamentally change any of the operations that can be performed on photos through the website -- it just simplifies a bit of the rigamarole associated with automating the process. In this respect it serves as a device that abets infringement. But that can't reasonably be considered a flaw or mistake, for reasons we should all be familiar with by now.

The Flickr API can be used to violate photograph owners' rights. But the fault lies with those who misuse the tool, not with the tool itself. Goldstein doesn't seem content with going after infringers, and I suppose that's understandable -- it's a neverending battle, and an unsatisfying one. But what he's asking from Flickr is both wrongheaded and technically impossible. He, and copyright owners everywhere, can choose to adapt to the rules of the digital age or to retreat from them entirely -- but rewriting them is not an option.

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