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Flogging content

By Steven | April 26, 2010

RNZ’s Mediawatch this week looked at the ethics of the media’s practice of drawing content, including pictures, from social networking sites. Host Colin Peacock mentioned a Herald on Sunday article that pulled material from a car accident victim’s Facebook site, including a photo of him, adding:

Like many people using the social networking websites these days, the victim in this case had chosen not to restrict access to the material he posted on Facebook, so there was nothing to stop any journalist looking at it or putting it in their stories.

It’s true that journalists can draw information from such sites, and it’s often good reporting. But it’s not true that there’s nothing to stop them putting the photos in their stories. This will almost always be a breach of copyright, unless the copyright owner’s permission is obtained first. Open access settings on Facebook do not change that basic rule. (True, there’s an emerging public interest defence to breach of copyright – and that’s a welcome development, I think – but it’s rather tenuous at the moment, and at its best will still demand legitimate public concern in the photo itself, a standard which won’t often be satisfied).

Stuff’s social media editor Greer McDonald was interviewed. She said, at various points, that “where possible” they seek permission for the use of such material, and that “on all occasions we seek permission”. She also gave an example of a particular situation where they hadn’t: she didn’t imagine anyone sought permission from the family of murdered Scottish backpacker Karen Aim before using travel photos from her Bebo profile – this “added to the story in a way that wasn’t negative”. Well, maybe. The family, who owned the rights to those photos, may conceivably have taken a different view. (McDonald did note that families were often happy to provide permission in such circumstances, though).

I have heard of situations where media organisations, including Fairfax, have used people’s photos without seeking permission first. I suspect it’s fairly common. If someone objects, they’ll offer them something (maybe a couple of hundred dollars or so). If the copyright owner won’t deal, they’ll probably just take it down. The copyright owner could sue for the brief use of the photo without permission, but who’s going to bother?

Topics: Copyright, Media ethics | 44 Comments »

44 Responses to “Flogging content”

  1. dpf Says:
    April 26th, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Sunday News used a blog photo I took of a couple without permission or credit.

    I e-mailed the Editor and they agreed to pay me $300 or so for the photo.

    The funny thing is if they had asked in advance I might have said they could have it for free, so long as credited.

  2. geoff Says:
    April 27th, 2010 at 9:20 am

    Of course Mediawatch conveniently ignored the fact that it is just as unethical if not more so to publish someone’s stolen e-mails e.g Don Brash.
    In law receiving stolen goods is considered a crime so why is media content considered exempt?

  3. Justin Says:
    April 27th, 2010 at 9:33 am

    I know of one case where the press had to halt publication of material based on stolen (confidential) property, so its not exempt.

    From memory the public interest aspect of the Brash case over-rode the breach of confidence side. I seem to recall some debate over whether the emails could be proven to be stolen, or were they given (so its still breach of confidence but not stolen property).

  4. geoff Says:
    April 27th, 2010 at 10:02 am

    Given by whom? Obviously not Don Brash or why call the police?

    And who determines the the public interest – the media?

  5. Steven Says:
    April 27th, 2010 at 11:24 am

    Readers might recall that I was acting for Nicky Hager, so I am not going to be commenting on this in any depth. But I can say that Don Brash withdrew his injunction, which was founded on breach of confidence and breach of copyright. And that had he continued with it, there would have been arguments over public interest defences (these are determined, of course, by the courts). And that after a thorough inquiry (backed up by an inquiry into the soundness of the first inquiry), police found no evidence of a crime by Nicky. And finally that newspapers and politicians routinely make public information leaked in breach of a variety of legal obligations, and are not usually pilloried for it.

  6. geoff Says:
    April 27th, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Okay, so maybe they weren’t stolen- but aren’t we drifting off the original point here- Mediawatch is arguing that it is unethical to use postings from Facebook without the author’s permission and the fact is that, as Steven has just informed us, newspapers and politicians make public leaked information all the time.

    So, presumably then if Don Brash had posted his confidential E-mails on Facebook it would have been unethical for Nicky Hager to reproduce these without Brash’s permission??

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