Friday, March 30, 2012

Is Your Facebook Party Photo on a Billboard?

Several years ago, in my book Issues In Internet Law,  I wrote about Alison Chang, a 15-year-old Asian-American girl who had her photo snapped by Justin Wong, a church youth counselor, as Alison helped out at a church-sponsored car wash in Dallas, Texas. Wong posted the photo to his Flickr account. Brenton Cleeland, who lives across the world in Australia, was walking down a street in Adelaide when he saw Wong’s photo of Alison blown up on a billboard at a bus stop  (click for imagewith a small note at the bottom stating it had come from Wong’s Flickr account. Cleeland snapped a shot of the billboard and posted it on his own Flickr account.

Apparently, an Australian ad agency decided rather than hire a model for its new ad campaign for Virgin Mobile, it would simply search Flickr’s collection of photos to find one it liked. They must have liked Alison’s photo a lot, because her image was cropped out of the photo, flipped, and blown up to appear on the billboard in Adelaide, which touted the double-entendre “virgin–to–virgin” text services beneath Alison’s photo and above her photo, in large letters read: “Dump Your Pen Friend.”

Alison saw her face on the billboard for the first time when she landed on Cleeland’s Flickr page. “hey that's me! no joke. i think i'm being insulted...can you tell me where this was taken,” the surprised girl wrote beneath her photo.  Cleeland replied, “I'm quite surprised that you were not in the least informed that your photo was being used! The photo was taken on Churchill Road, Adelaide, Australia. I believe that it's being used as part of a national campaign - there are a lot of other slogans and photos being used, I think some of the others are from Flickr as well.”

Wong had used a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license on photos posted to his Yahoo Flickr photo-sharing account. That particular license allowed any use, even commercial, as long as he was credited. So while it was technically legal for the agency to appropriate the photo, neither Alison nor the photographer were notified or compensated for its use, and Alison expressed she felt the photo had disparaged her. The case is discussed in my book, Issues In Internet Law

Until today, I thought the Chang case was the most egregious incident of photo appropriation from the Internet, but a new example has surfaced that carries a double whammy. In 2008, University of North Carolina student-body president Eve Carson was abducted, robbed, and murdered. Today, her official student body president portrait (click here), taken by a university photographer, was apparently taken off the Internet and used without permission of the deceased student’s family or the copyright holder, UNC. Like Alison Chang’s photo, Carson’s photo also appears on a foreign billboard promoting a business, in this case, Jubeerich Consultancy, an Indian company offering "overseas study opportunities and placement services" (click for image). The school and the murdered girl’s family are understandably upset about the blatant misappropriation of her photo for commercials purposes. Unlike the Chang case, there appears to have been no Creative Commons license allowing commercial use.

In an ironic and even more distasteful move, the NewsObserver, which reported the story, reprinted the billboard with Carson’s photo and placed a “Buy Photo” link (click here for image) beneath it, allowing readers to purchase a print of the photo (matted and framed) or have it placed on a coffee mug, mousepad, deck of playing cards, or drink coasters. It strikes me as a bit hypocritical to rail against a foreign company using Carson’s photo for commercial purposes while simultaneously selling the dead girl’s photo to be used on a deck of cards ($34.95) or a drink coaster (4 for $24.95). I wonder how the poor murdered girl’s parents feel about people setting their beers on a coaster bearing their daughter’s face? Way to go, NewsObserver!

The moral of the story is be careful posting those photos online; you don't know where they may end up.

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