Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Guide to Happy (and Legal) Tumblr-ing

Blogging without 'stealing' is much easier than you think

Information wants to be free. At least that appears to be the sentiment among bloggers, the majority of whom subscribe to a what's-mine-is-yours-and-what's-yours-is-mine policy (but mostly the latter part). By this point, the blogoverse has become a lot like what Picasso supposedly said about inspiration: A good artist copies, but a great artist steals. 

Of course, back in his day you couldn't exactly right click on a canvas in a gallery and drag it over onto your bedroom wall, so what did he know? 

Whether or not information should be free is a different matter altogether. On popular blogging platforms like Tumblr, the point is moot. For the bloggers who use these sites, the exchange of copyrighted material and intellectual property—other people's photographs, music, lists of all the amazing things you ate for lunch—isn't just an aspect of the form, it's practically the entire business model.
Call it the copy(paste)right approach to creativity, where much of the allure is in reblogging posts from contacts in your network in an Internet version of the telephone game. Each repetition takes you further and further away from the work's original creator.

It doesn't have to be that way. There are services that make content available for bloggers to reuse on their own sites, free of thorny ethical issues and legal complications. Most bloggers aren't aware of these resources or don't seem to know what the appropriate standards actually are.

Posting a photograph that belongs to someone else, for example, even with attribution and a link is illegal if done without the author's authorization. I know, really scary right? No, the Internet police probably aren't going to be kicking down your door to ask questions about that copyrighted photo of Ke$ha you just posted, but when it's almost as easy to do things the right way, why not at least try?
"It's a willful ignorance," says Bert Krages, a Portland, Ore., lawyer who specializes in intellectual property issues, and has written "Legal Handbook for Photographers: The Rights and Liabilities of Making Images." He says, "A lot of people are disinclined to find out what their legal obligations are for fear of finding out they aren't as broad as they think."

Posting someone else's intellectual property on your blog basically comes down to stealing, says Mr. Krages, particularly when it comes to professional photographers. "Even a minor usage of a photo on a blog can destroy the value of an image with regard to licensing it for other uses."

There are a few ways to lessen your unlawful-blogging footprint, though. Much like a chef who cooks with only the happiest free-range chickens, there's such a thing as ethical blogging as well. Here's how:
Use Creative Commons
One of the most bountiful and convenient ways to ensure you're blogging with a clear conscience is to utilize services that operate under a Creative Commons license. Creative Commons is an organization that works with websites like Flickr, Picasa, Vimeo, SoundCloud and Scribd, as well as individual producers of creative content, to provide standardized and streamlined licensing solutions under a variety of different permission levels. "We want information to be free when the people who have created the content want it to be free, and to have an easy way to make it free under their terms," says Eric Steuer, Creative Commons's creative director.
Get content from sites like Flickr
Flickr alone has some 100 million images that are available to use under sharing guidelines. Picasa, another vast photo database, owned by Google, also offers the option to search for photos that are free to use by bloggers. Other smaller, more creativity-focused sites like moregueFile are sprouting up now as well.

"The purpose of the site has been for allowing people to use images in the least restrictive way," says Johannes Seemann, morgueFile's business lead. 

While photos make up the majority of reblogged content, music, video and large pieces of other people's writing also regularly show up. Like Flickr and Picasa do for photos, sites like SoundCloud, Vimeo,, SpinXpress and Wikimedia Commons offer more writing, songs and video than you could ever possibly use.
Refine your Web searches
If you're looking for the right photo to match an essay on your blog, take the extra step to enable a customized Creative Commons search. From select "advanced search." From there, click "usage rights." Searches can then be further narrowed down with options like "free to use or share." Or simply go to where you can find content that's been approved for commercial use or further modification and tweaking. Yes, this is the Internet, where suffering through five extra seconds is an eternity, but like anything else that's good for you, once you get in the habit, it will become second nature.
Ask nicely
Perhaps the best advice for bloggers is to simply be mindful of where their content is coming from. You'd be surprised how far a little common courtesy will get you. 

"The best thing to do is let the photographer know that you would like to use their image," says Zack Sheppard, senior community manager at Flickr. "Photographers are often happy to have their image used on a blog without asking a fee."
When in doubt, cite your source
As Katherine Barna, Tumblr's director of communications, puts it, "Be fair. Use proper credit and attribution if sharing content that wasn't originated by you."

"Reputational currency is important," says Mr. Steuer of Creative Commons. "Do the best job you can to attribute it to the person that created the content, linking back, saying their name." It won't get you off the hook legally, but compared to no attribution, it's a start. You'll appreciate it when your own blog gets big and the credit comes back around.


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