Tragedy of the Commons: Lane Hartwell vs. Richter Scales


In Ridley's book, The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, he explains that Garrett Hardin's famous Tragedy of the Commons example which reads:

"Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all." p. 232

is a mis-reading of history. In actuality:

"...an English medieval common was a complex spider's web of jealously guarded property rights...these were rights to graze, cut wood, dig turf, turn out pigs to eat acorns, catch fish, or take gravel, sand or stone. And these rights were privately owned by individuals...commons came in effect to be owned jointly by those who possessed these rights in common, rights that were extinguished, converted or trampled in the process known as enclosure. But commons were never free-for-alls." p. 232

As you see, the tragedy was availed in a democratic manner. People obeyed their limits on the common property because, well, they didn't want it to be taken away. If a farmer abused his/her privileges, by grazing more sheep or taking more gravel than alloted, s/he would lose them altogether. In this way, the commons persisted and all 'won'. If left to a free-for-all, the commons would befall the tragedy Garrett Hardin surmises and become unusable. Nobody, not even the abuser, would 'win'.

The photography, artwork, literature and other works under the Creative Commons license today requires a similar balance. Artists put their work into the commons and other artists use and credit that work to the benefit of all parties. The original artist benefits by getting his/her work spread further (only realized through accreditation), the Creative Commons benefits because this positive flow encourages more artists to submit their work, and the mashup artist benefits because s/he has a good breadth of works to pull for inspiration and materials.

Now, if the accreditation is broken, it ceases to benefit the original artists, who have a bad experience with Creative Commons and won't put future works into the commons for usage, so, ultimately the mashup artists suffer as well because they have less material to pull from for their own creative works.

Lane Hartwell has been suffering a tragedy of the commons for quite sometime now. Although her photographs aren't under the Creative Commons license (they are marked All Rights Reserved, which means someone actually needs to contact her if they want to use one of her shots, which is simple to do on Flickr or on her blog) she has offered a great deal of amazing photography, documenting a very exciting time in history. In my opinion, her photographs are essential, just as Scott Beale's are (he has also been repeatedly frustrated by non-credited use of his work), and the great tragedy that has come of the unfortunate tipping point incident of the unauthorized/uncredited use of Lane's work in a video by the group Richter Scales.

Now, of course, the Richter Scale's use of the photo wasn't extraneous, but since the video was viewed hundreds of thousands of times (prior to takedown), there was a missed opportunity there for the many photographers whose photos were used to make this group famous. In their post entitled, Credit and "Here Comes Another Bubble, the author explains:

We did make an effort to credit those people we actively worked with on the video, as well as Billy Joel, which we listed in the comments on YouTube and on our blog. But, given the large number of sources we used, the task of assigning credit for each source seemed impractical.

He goes on to mention Lane Hartwell...without linking to her photos or her website. As one commenter said, "Basically if I am reading your post correct, what I hear you saying is "Mea Culpa, but we're lazy."" In actuality, the time one can take to list the photo credits is a fraction of the time it would take to go out and duplicate the work of those artists to make the same presentation.

But that is where we will head if we continue having a cavalier attitude (I like how Lane put it) towards the use of the work of others. The more we abuse, the more we will lose.

I learnt this the hard way a couple of years back. Flickr was my wonderland, filled with gorgeous photos. I would search groups and tags until I found the cornucopia of fabulous shots to make my presentations pop and people go ooooh and aaaaah. Now, to be clear, I understood the importance of attribution even back then and gave full credit, but I did not respect the wishes of the photographers. I used photos not marked with CC licensing (many were marked as Lane's are, with All Rights Reserved) and didn't clear my usage with the photographers.

I, of course, was busted and learnt a very valuable lesson in respect for artist's work. One photographer emailed me and told me about a site that I have grown to absolutely love and adore, iStockPhoto, which has made a world of difference in my presentations as I know I have explicit rights (paid for affordably - so I am supporting the artist directly) to use the photographs in my presentations. My presentations look hot, the photographers get paid and iStockPhoto grows so more people can benefit. I still use some Flickr photos (CC Non-Commercial/Commercial Attribution Share-Alike licenses only), but I always ALWAYS ALWAYS credit the photographers, providing a link to the original photo (also a requirement from Flickr, btw). If someone was to ask me to remove a photo, I would without question. It is not my work to argue.

Whether or not Lane invoking the DMCA is legal or not isn't really what matters here and making it about 'hurt feelings' belittles what is really at stake here. What is at stake here is that the continuance of individual abuse of the privileges of the works put into the commons will lead to fewer of those works being put into the commons.

If we want the 'free the content' world to work - and that would be ideal for all - we have to learn to respect the work and the producers of that work. Putting our productions online shouldn't mean that we give up all claims and possibility of profiting from it and we should discourage those who abuse this. Just like in the English medieval commons, we need to understand that:

Common property and open-access free-for-alls are very different things. (p.233)

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