Twitpic, Flickr use by eyewitnesses raises questions for news orgs about image rights, compensation

When a Southwest Airlines 737 developed a six-foot hole in the fuselage in mid-air recently, some passengers screamed, others prayed.

Shawna Malvini Redden tweeted.

Redden – a doctoral student at Arizona State University – turned on her smartphone as the plane descended over Yuma, Arizona for an emergency landing. Surprised to receive a usable cellular signal, she texted her husband, then began updating her Twitter page.

Emergency landing in Yuma. SW pilots are amazing!” she told her followers. “Loss of cabin pressure, hands down the Scariest experience of my life.” She quickly followed up by posting photos of the damaged plane on Twitpic.

“I just wanted people to know what happened,” Redden said in a phone interview. “When I was doing this, I only had 50 followers on Twitter, and most of them were my friends from college.”

Southwest Airlines mechanics work near a Boeing 737 on a tarmac in Yuma, Ariz., on Wednesday, April 6, 2011, after patching a large hole in the jetliner that made an emergency landing. (Yuma International Airport, Gen Grosse/AP)

Her online popularity soon skyrocketed. After the jet landed safely, news organizations discovered Redden’s photos online. While Redden and her fellow passengers sat more than two hours in the stricken plane on the Tarmac waiting for another aircraft to arrive, her photos began careening around the Internet.

“I heard from passengers around me that my photos had hit CNN, and then I looked at my Twitter feed, and all of the sudden, I had all of these reporters talking to me,” said Redden, who now has more than 800 Twitter followers. “It was shocking as a normal, quiet citizen.”

Amateur photos pose challenges

Redden isn’t the first passenger who’s tweeted out early news of an airline mishap. When a Continental jet slid off a Denver runway in 2008, one of the first reports was passenger Mike Wilson’s tweet: “Holy f****** s*** I was just in a plane crash!” But the Southwest mishap was especially well-documented by amateur photographers. At least three passengers had their photos picked up by the news media. The Associated Press even published a passenger photo of other passengers taking photos.

As it becomes common for people to snap pictures of news events and post them on social networking sites, journalistic organizations sometimes face difficult decisions about whether to publish or broadcast them. There’s little consensus in the news business on such issues as how to verify the accuracy of the photos, whether to contact the photographer before using the picture, and how copyright laws apply to photos on sites like Twitpic and Flickr.

“The last thing you wanted to do was post a picture that’s not legitimate,” said Cathaleen Curtiss, who was Vice President of global photography at AOL from 1997 to 2010. “But a lot of organizations think ‘we’ll get it out there, and then we’ll figure out the right thing to do.’”

The drive to “get it out there” has led to embarrassments. News sites have published fake photos of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2010 Haitian earthquake, a tornado spinning past the Statue of Liberty, and even Sarah Palin wearing a bikini.

“There’s a lot of images floating around out there that aren’t what they claim to be,” said Associated Press photography director Santiago Lyon. He said AP’s policy on “citizen photos” requires editors to contact the photographer and verify each image before publishing it.

Other news organizations are more willing to take a chance on a compelling picture before it’s been thoroughly vetted. Curtiss said AOL’s policy during her tenure allowed editors to publish a photo immediately and keep it on AOL’s site for as long as two hours while attempting to contact the photographer. If a problem was detected or the photographer couldn’t be reached, the photo was removed.

“It answered the need to get it out as soon as possible,” Curtiss said, noting that it rarely took long to get in touch with photographers whose photos were legitimate. “If the person posted a picture on Twitpic, it’s not that difficult to reach back out to the person and check the facts.”

Talking directly with photographers also provides an opportunity for news organizations to work through the legal and financial issues that can arise from republishing material from a social media site. While it’s not uncommon for other websites to take photos from social networking sites without permission or compensation, it’s not necessarily legal.

“In the rush to be first, a lot of people are just lifting things,” said Mickey Osterreicher, a New York attorney who worked three decades as a photojournalist and is now General Counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. He said website owners often decide to gamble that photographers either won’t notice that their work has been republished or won’t understand that their copyright has been violated.

In general, photographers maintain the copyright to images they post on social networking sites, though some sites – such as Flickr – allow posters to grant limited redistribution rights if they choose. Typically, the law requires owners of other sites to contact the photographer to obtain consent before republishing the picture. And even if an amateur photographer posts a shot on a social networking site, that doesn’t preclude him or her from demanding payment from other sites that want to use it.

Curtiss — the former AOL executiive — says payments of $100 to $300 are typical for non-exclusive one-time use of newsworthy photos. But images of especially unusual events (or celebrities) can command much more, and Curtiss says many photographers are happy with less.

“A lot of times, people would say, ‘I don’t want anything. Just take it,’” Curtiss said.

Credit and courtesy

Shawna Malvini Redden – the tweeting Southwest airlines passenger — said copyright issues never crossed her mind as she watched her photos go viral on the Web. She said many media organizations that used her images did indeed contact her in advance. (CBS News did so in a tweet:  “CBS Evening News w/Katie Couric would like to use your pics from plane credit to: Shawna Malvini Redden via Twitter?”)

“A couple people asked if they could use the pictures, and without thinking, I said ‘sure,’” Redden said.  “It’s kind of cool to see my name out there.”

But she’s distressed about news organizations that used her photos without permission or attribution.  And Redden says only one, Reuters, offered to pay her — $100 for her shots.

“This experience for me is not about making money,” Redden said. “But the people who have run the photos without a photo credit is concerning to me. I teach communication classes and talk about plagiarism all day long.”

In recent days, she’s begun to use her Twitter feed to police such infractions. Noting the London Daily Mail had reprinted one of her photos with a credit only to Reuters, she tweeted, “Reuters does not own the copyright to my photo, nor have they yet licensed it.”  (A Reuters spokeswoman said Redden was properly credited when the picture was sent out on the wire, but the Daily Mail neglected to run the complete credit.)

“The courteous thing would have been to put my name up there,” Redden told me. “To see major news outlets not doing that is disappointing.”

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  • gabriela

    what role plays fair use in here???

  • Floyd Webb

    flying defective planes is unlawful and inhumane.

  • Garrett Goodman

    Citizenside is a citizen photojournalism agency in France that protects amateurs around the world from being taken advantage of by copyright infringement. The recent video of designer John Galliano that got him fired from Dior was submitted to Citizenside by the amateur that captured the footage. Citizenside brought in more than 100K euros through syndicating the video, the lion’s share of which goes to that amateur.

    You can read all about it in this Wall Street Journal article on Citizenside. It’s called “Selling Video Scoops Online”

    disclaimer: I’m international coordinator for Citizenside, and I think our global news community is a testament to the growing importance of social news-gathering in the media.

  • Dylan Smith

    The terms of service for TwitPic are pretty basic: by uploading, you grant all other users a worldwide non-exclusive license to your photos, as long as they use the TwitPic site or API to access them. So, embedding in a website w/ the API is kosher, broadcast probably not so much (rather a gray area if they’re showing a monitor w/ the TwitPic site up…) RTFM when you sign up for stuff, folks.

    TwitPic keeps data associated w/ the photog, location, etc. associated with the photo.

  • Floyd Webb

    Mobile phone photo apps should have a feature to add name, email and cell # for credit attribution to photos. This will help when images go viral.

  • Floyd Webb

    Twitpics and other mobile apps need to offered imbedding of photogtaphers name, email and cell phone number on posted images

  • Dave Earley

    This doesn’t “raise questions for news orgs” because it’s not a “new” question. It’s been around for a long time, and news organisations should have figured it out years ago.

    There is no question. You get consent to use someone else’s content, or you don’t use it. That consent may or may not include payment. If payment is requested and you’re not willing to give payment, then you don’t use it.

    On multiple occasions I’ve contacted a Twitter user to get their consent to use a Twitpic in a news article. Nobody has ever refused or asked for payment, but that doesn’t mean it would have been okay to just take it without asking. That’s inviting trouble, including accusations of plagiarism and theft. Mainstream media can hardly badger bloggers as “content thieves”, and then turn around and lift user-generated content.

    Not all Twitter users are online constantly, so there have been times I’ve been unable to contact the photographer. A lot of people might take a photo, send it, and not look at their phone again for hours. Again, when I’ve been unable to get consent, I haven’t used the photo. It’s not that hard.

  • Anonymous

    Her use of a cellphone in flight was unlawful.

  • Bill Cooke

    They’re not just stealing from Twitter. We just had a story here in South Florida where a guy posted 3 or 4 really good videos to Youtube of a melee on Miami Beach. Every station in town used the videos on their newscasts.

    Not sure what someone can do to keep a video from being used.

    But in the case of Twitter, if someone feels they MUST upload a picture, I recommend reducing it in size and putting a watermark on it. Uploading a full size un-watermarked photo to Twitter is like leaving your car parked with the keys in it. You are inviting theft.

  • John Barnett

    Pretty amazing the rampant theft by major news orgs and celeb sites. They think if it’s on Twitter it can be used without permission, payment, or proper attribution.

    It’s not a “misunderstanding” or a problem with “consensus” — it’s an issue of theft. All the news and media orgs need to do is *read* the Twitpic terms of service.

  • Ryan LeFevre

    The guidelines for using a photo from TwitPic are really straightforward. If you get a photo directly from TwitPic, you must link back to the photo page in some way. If you get the photo directly from the user, then that is another story.

    Yet, most online news outlets don’t attribute the photo to TwitPic (let alone link back to the page) when they get it directly from the site. Instead, they attribute the photo to Twitter (sometimes they don’t attribute at all) and link to the user’s Twitter profile. It all seems like proper attribution is the first thing to go out the window in the rush to post a news story first.

  • Bill Cooke

    As a long-time professional photojournalist, I find this interesting for several reasons. I wrote about this issue on my blog recently.

    What I find fascinating is that many people who shoot a once-in-a-life time event, feel they have to get the pictures out there as soon as possible…for no payment. And when they find out how important they are, then, and only then, do they start complaining. “This experience for me is not about making money,” Redden said. “But the people who have run the photos without a photo credit ”

    I raised that issue in my blog post. There seems to be an awful lot of people willing to give away valuable news pictures in exchange for seeing their name in print or on TV.

    And this trend isn’t limited to amateurs. Professional photographer Daniel Morel is now in a protracted legal battle with AFP because they took his Haiti earthquake pictures from Twitter.

    The solution to this is simple. Stop uploading photos to social media sites. If you feel you must, upload low res files with watermarks.

  • Nathan Gibbs

    TV news programs often broadcast clips from YouTube and display others’ photos without permission. I think it’s partly a misinterpretation of “fair use” regarding newsworthiness, and partly a misunderstanding of “embedding.” Most online video is embeddable, and I wonder if it gives news managers the impression they can “embed” it in broadcasts as well.

    I’ve argued with TV people who say “we can broadcast anything from YouTube.” In one case, the legal adviser for the station didn’t seem to have a handle on the nuances of copyright and online media. I think print publishers are generally more aware of photo rights because they’re used to spending money on photography.

    The other part of the problem is that most users who upload don’t understand their rights. They also don’t know who to talk to about getting compensated. And, I’m not sure it’s always “worth it” monetarily. In one case, I heard a lawyer say it wasn’t worth the effort because the compensation for the photo wasn’t more than the legal fees.

    Fascinating subject. Thanks for your post.