The BuzzFeed Lawsuit, or, What the Hell Are We Gonna Do With Pictures in the Digital Age?


In the Age of Too Much Information, an infinite stream of photos floods the blogs, the news sites, the Facebooks, the meme world, Google Image Search, and whatever other nook of the Interwebs. Sometimes they are credited, and sometimes they are not; the whole mantra “give credit where credit is due” is a nonissue in online communities, where the universality of everything online trumps the degree of transparency.

We saw this issue arise in the Shepard Fairey case — the Associated Press sued the street artist for millions for taking the famous shot of Obama and turning it into the even-more-famous “Hope” poster. In the end, Fairey received 300 hours of community service for his “wrongdoing.”

And we’re seeing it once again in a lawsuit filed against BuzzFeed. Florida-based photo agency Marvix is suing the media organization for taking nine celebrity photos of Katy Perry and others. In the case, Marvix v. BuzzFeed, the agency accuses the Web giant for not attributing where the photos came from. The Floridians want $1.3 million paid back in damages because, in copyright law, a stolen picture is worth $150,000. Multiply that number by the nine in question, and, voila, you have yourself a hefty sum.

But case aside, the question here is not the integrity of BuzzFeed or this “copyright trolling” photo agency. No, the matter is something much more larger and prevalent in the rapidly connecting way we receive our news: What the hell are we gonna do with photos in the modern age?

Like most legal questions we deal with, there is no “right” answer; only an conclusion based off precedent and concern for the parties involved. With that being said, the parties involved are pretty simple: the photo creator and the medium in which the photo is presented (i.e., BuzzFeed or any other website). However, the precedent is what holds everything up in the Internet Age because, truth be told, there is none. We have no permanent legal structure for the World Wide Web to combat this question — it’s hard to establish a foundation when your foundation is constantly changing. In other words, you can’t create precedent with MySpace and then think it can be used at a later time.

Therefore, we are left with even more of a mess.

So the first option to answer this question could be constructive: Create a completely independent court that deals with copyrights on the Web. Make the court system the “copyright troll,” not the agencies looking to make a quick buck off a picture of Katy Perry. It will scare the living daylights out of online organizations to share photos without attribution if they have a judge breathing down their back.

But is this what we want? The courts are meant to establish law; not jam it down every cyber-user’s throat. The Internet is a place of all sorts of expression; it’s a messy place to begin with. And BuzzFeed is a prime example of how much content the Web can actually churn out 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The last thing we want to do is give the court a broom to sweep that all up into a locked closet.

Another option could be a bit more radical. How about zero attribution to everyone? It’d be like absolute net neutrality for photography, where your photos are vacuumed-sealed into the Web’s vault the minute you upload them. It’s the extreme sense of that online universality mentioned before: If the Internet is a grassroots clusterfuck of humanity, why not just devolve all photos and send them off into the slaughter of uncredited cyberspace? WikiLeaks, Anonymous, and 4Chan, meet your maker.

But then what would happen to the people actually taking the photos? Once again, we see that the parties involved are a huge factor here; if we do apply this ultimatum, the whole field of photography becomes unprofitable. As my photography teacher once said, “Taking a great picture is wonderful, but taking a great picture and getting paid for it is even better.” That whole idea would quickly become a product of the not-so-far-off past.

One has to keep in mind that not crediting photos is a cheaper alternative. Regardless if Marvix’s accusation toward BuzzFeed is true, it’s safe to say that the site didn’t have to pay a dime for those photos. Someone (or, for modernity purposes, some intern) copied and pasted them into WordPress or Movable Type or whatever other content-management system, and, with the snap of a finger, they were posted to millions. This happens every day all across the world and, at the speed it does happen, it’s an extremely hard situation to dictate. How do you set guidelines on something that flashes across the screen in the blink of an eye? And where does this leave us?

A huge part of Internet usage and how we go about expressing ourselves on these damn computers is the notion of self-responsibility. It’s like Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations but for the Digital Age — we must be cautious of the parties involved when we act in the public sphere and, since the Internet is one giant Roman forum, this means we have to be cautious all the time. Sorry, but this is what you signed up for when you first heard the dial-up noises way back in the early 2000s. Lawsuits like this one are going to continue to pile up, and it’s undetermined whether the courts will deal with them in a piecemeal manner. Or they can just hand BuzzFeed a few hours of community service like Fairey and leave the issue for another day.

Until then, online organizations, be it media or not, just need to watch themselves. When all else fails, use Wikimedia Commons.