‘Fair Use’ and the Flickr widget

I stumbled across an interesting topic in the WordPress forums last night — whether a blogger can use the Flickr widget to display thumbnails of photos other than his or her own. I’d previously looked at the widget and thought it was good only for displaying my own photos (I have none) or the default “interesting” photos setting.

Never underestimate the creativity of bloggers! Bug Girl, over at Bug Girl’s Blog, realized she could specify different tags and display the Flickr category of her choice, rather than WP’s default. Because her blog is devoted to insects, she used that tag and got a constantly changing display of insect photos. Cool. I could insert http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/Colorado/ and have a constantly changing display of Colorado photos (or any other tag) to entertain both visitors and myself. Of course, this will pull in both good and bad photography … hmm.

The fly in this ointment (sorry, Bug Girl) was a photographer who discovered that several of his photos had appeared briefly on Bug Girl’s blog. His photos are displayed publicly on Flickr, but they are copyrighted, and he took issue with their unauthorized display on someone’s blog.

Ah, the sticky wickets of technology. Was his copyright violated? Did Bug Girl violate both his copyright and the intended use of the Flickr widget? Was her use any different than, say, Google’s display of images, copyrighted and otherwise? Does a thumbnail violate the Fair Use doctrine? (After all, it displays 100% of the work, not just a small excerpt.) Should the photographer have made his photos “private” if he wanted to protect them?

At first I leaned toward supporting the photographer. After all, I’d certainly want a blogger to remove my copyrighted work if I asked. But there’s no way Bug Girl could do that. The brief display was already gone. So he demanded she remove the widget that had briefly displayed his photos. She refused and referred the issue to WordPress; WordPress said the widget worked off an RSS feed and was legal.

My old editor’s heart and mind are still in a knot over this. I see valid arguments on both sides. And I still can’t decide if I’d feel comfortable using that widget if it displays copyrighted material. Check out “Photos, Flames, and Copyright” and see what you think. The discussion there is ongoing.

9 thoughts on “‘Fair Use’ and the Flickr widget

  1. Oh what a sticky subject this is! As one with little artistic talent yet a lot to say, I depend heavily on “visual aides” like images and videos, and not a small amount of music, to help express the point of my blog posts – taking full advantage of the old “a picture paints a thousand words” thing. I’ve never claimed to own any of this “borrowed” stuff and have provided source attributions wherever I could, but it has occurred to me that it’s a “fine line” issue and that does give me pause. Hell, just because I think a piece of art is representative of what I’m thinking, that doesn’t mean that the artist would agree. Sticky indeed!

  2. I wonder how an artist can claim exclusive ownership to anything that’s on the internet. At the same time I wonder how an artist can prevent someone from putting his work on the internet.

    After someone (without permission or attribution) puts someone else’s copyrighted work on the the internet – can subsequent recipients of that work be guilty of it’s further distribution if they have no idea where it originated?

    Even more removed, what if it’s an automated “widget” that spreads the work? Can the programmer who developed the widget be guilty too? And WordPress that employs it?

    I don’t have any real answers either. It’s like y’all said… “it’s a sticky subject.”

    1. Supposedly, if you publish something on the Internet, it is considered automatically copyrighted by you. Adding a copyright notice states it in writing for anyone who might think otherwise (like the editor of Cooks Source magazine). The Internet is still the Wild West as far as the law is concerned and it still operates pretty much on the honor system.

... and that's my two cents