I’ve got to admit, working the White House beat is vastly intriguing to me.
I’ve already pondered whether I would accept the position of White House photographer if offered the job. (Would I? Not quite sure, but leaning toward “yes.”) I enjoyed Ana Marie Cox’s “spring cleaning” column in The Washington Post about “why we should get rid of the White House press corps.” (Do I agree with it? Cox has some valid points, but I think the White House press corps still serves an important function.)
The vast majority of the 310 photos uploaded thus far were placed online on April 28, just before Pres. Obama marked his 100th day in office. It appears that Souza will keep the Flickr stream live, at least perhaps on business days, as his last upload was Friday, May 1.
Because I’m curious (read: nosy), I checked Souza’s EXIF data on his Flickr photos.
(For those who may not know: EXIF data is information recorded and stored in the image’s file by the camera and editing software. Information about the image’s exposure settings, the make/model of the camera and lens used, copyright details and post-production editing notes are available in the image’s EXIF data. Flickr automatically makes EXIF data available to the public, unless the Flickr user disables that option. You can view an example of EXIF data here.)
Reading a sample of EXIF data from a few of Souza’s photos, here’s what interested me most:
- Souza uses a Canon 5D Mark II. Only the best!
- He already uses Adobe CS4 software.
- He shoots in RAW but appears to do very little editing in RAW.
- Souza’s EXIF data is available only in a few photos uploaded after his massive April 28 upload.
- He shoots with automatic white balance — nothing custom or even set in a particular white balance mode.
- Most strikingly: His copyright/use information is deeply puzzling.
Here’s the copyright information:
This official White House photograph is being made available for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be used in materials, advertisements, products, or promotions that in any way suggest approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.
When I first saw this a few days ago, it immediately set off a few red flags in my mind. I was surprised that Souza had not established a stricter copyright/use policy. Coupled with that, his photos are available for downloading at full size — typically exceeding 2333 pixels as the shorter side, which is plenty of quality resolution for a variety of published media.
The combination of a) loose copyright/use policy and b) easily accessible downloading makes me wonder exactly why Souza, who also heads the White House photo department, opted to allow for either of those, much less both.
As Jeff put it earlier tonight (which is what prompted me to write this blog post):
like, there’s no way to actively enforce that other than scanning all advertisements or stuff
then it’s a gray area as to what counts as an endorsement or approval
can someone make a T-shirt with an obama face?
for personal use? is wearing that showing endorsement? can they sell that?
can a political blog (openly partisan) use photos? if they’re receiving advertising money from sponsors, and WH images appear on that site?
I’ve done a cursory Google News search to see what others are saying about copyright issues and the White House photos on Flickr. It seems that Jeff and I are in the minority in being surprised that Souza did not place a stricter license on his photos.
Rather, the biggest question on most people’s minds seems to be: “Since these photos are governmental property, why aren’t they in the public domain?”
- In a May 1 commentary in Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Deeplinks blog, Hugh D’Andrade argues that what the White House “should set is a clear recognition that publicly funded government works should be free to the public, without the burden of copyright and licensing restrictions.”
- Marshall Kirkpatrick writes in an April 29 note in ReadWriteWeb that Flickr simply doesn’t offer Public Domain licensing as a copyright option for users to select, and opines that Flickr should do so.
- CNN, in its April 29 brief about the opening of the Flickr stream, makes note of the loose copyright license. The brief then quotes an Obama spokesman who says, “We want to make the White House more open and accessible for the American people. And this is just one way we are using the Internet and new media technology to accomplish that.” (But: this quote appears to be a standard PR quip about why the administration is opening up the stream, and not a comment pertaining to the copyright license.)
- Finally, Creative Commons — a nonprofit that provides free licenses — posted this explanation on April 29: “unlike communities like Wikipedia and Thingiverse, Flickr doesn’t allow their photographers to choose Public Domain as an option to release their work to the world. So the Obama team must have picked the next best option: Attribution only.”
Meanwhile, Flickr users themselves have joined the conversation.
As for myself, I’m wondering why Souza chose Flickr in the first place. Certainly it’s already a well-established photo-sharing Web site with thousands if not millions of users. But if Souza had anticipated the question of public domain becoming an issue, would he have chosen a different photo-sharing site or perhaps created his own?
And here’s a question I’d like to throw out there: What kind of audience does Souza expect? With “news organizations” specifically mentioned in his copyright notice, does he anticipate news outlets to opt for his photos over trying to gain access and sending their own photographers?
Whereas government PR offices send out news releases from which reporters can raise questions and search out details, photographers can’t do the same with photos released from those same offices. So what exactly is the expectation here? Is the White House photo department simply recording history, or is it becoming the exclusive photo service for the Obama administration?
- ADDENDUM (11:21 a.m., May 4)
Jeff asked me the logical follow-up to my last few grafs: “Do you think they should be in the public domain?”
He then said he doesn’t know if he would “consider that to be ‘government property’ in the same way documents or correspondence or bills are.”
Personally, I’m not quite sure either. I agree that photos aren’t quite the same as government paperwork that needs to be public domain and easily accessible to the public. Photos are art and storytellers, and subject to the eye of the beholder. And while Souza’s photos are records of history in the making, they aren’t records of policy or effect any such change.
But the photos are still a) in the interest of the public/wider audience and b) the work of a government employee. Does that mean they should be public domain?
I’m kinda split on this one. But either way, I think Souza needs to consult with an attorney to determine what is appropriate and then make a clear statement. That way, he can prevent any further confusion and potential conflicts.