Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A question of authorship

My Head in the Clouds - Magda Indigo

My wife and fellow professional photographer, Magda Indigo, uploaded this image on a photo sharing website yesterday. In her text supporting the image she had said, in all her honesty, that I had pressed the shutter button for her. It was deleted by the owner of the site as someone complained that she had not actually taken the image.

This is an interesting case and it raises questions of authorship. The rules of the site say that you can only upload images that you've taken. The narrowest interpretation of this is pictures that you took by pressing the shutter button on your camera. A wider interpretation would be images of which you are the author and copyright holder.

According to the wider interpretation this image is Magda's. She had the idea. Set the composition up. Decided on the framing. She borrowed my camera and set it up on the tripod. Because of the distance involved and the precise positioning, the self timer would have been tricky to use. So she asked me to stand by till she got into position and then push the shutter button. Which I did. So is this my shot or hers?

In terms copyright law, the person taking the photograph owns the copyright automatically. However that person can choose to transfer their copyright to another individual or an organisation. Many images are sold across the world where photographers have chosen to give up their copyright.

I know a number of professional photographers who use assistants to push the button when the moment is right. The photographer has the concept and tells the assistants where to put the lights, the studio manager organises the shoot, the hairdressers and stylists do their thing and then the photographer looks at everything, and like a director, issues orders and instructs the assistant to take the shot when the moment is right. Copyright in the image belongs to the photographer or to the company the photographer and their assistants work for. This will be stipulated in their contract of employment.

In my eyes I did no more than what any photographer's assistant would do, push the button when told to do so. Magda chose the moment when everything was right and checked the result. The final shot was what she intended, her concept, not mine at all.

The debate is age old on copyright but traditionally the view has always been that the ownership belongs to the person who's mind generated the artistic concept. The old masters, for example Rubens, or going further back Michelangelo had teams of assitants working on their paintings. In more modern times many of the works attributed to Andy Warhol were not actually produced by his hand, but under his direction.

Who's picture is it? In my heart I know the image above is Magda's. Her concept, her idea, her composition, her timing; I was merely a technician assisting (with full responsibility for pushing a little black button).

Do remember though, that without the express handing over of copyright from the person who has taken a photograph no one else may legally use that photographer's image in any way whatsoever.

I would welcome hearing your views on authoriship, origination and copyright.

Cheers,
Paul


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