Copyright and the crowdsourcing of promotional materials

There was a rumour that Facebook was allowing third-party advertisers to use user's photos in promotional materials. I imagine a photo of me and my friends enjoying Bacardi responsibly being scraped for use in an advert.

It turns out that rumour is false. But it's not totally groundless - it's based on the fact that some third-party Facebook applications were behaving in this way. Facebook put a stop to it, and are to be commended for that. In the general case, though, it's entirely believable that this sort of thing may still happen, on Facebook or elsewhere, and it's fascinating for me to think about why I personally have an objection to it.

I mean, if some company does use your photo in their promotions, then of course some people would feel this is a privacy issue simply because they are shy about having their personal photos widely disseminated outside their immediate social circle - pasted up on billboards or whatever - and they have a negative emotional reaction to that, and that's understandable.

Many people, however, would instead have a positive emotional reaction. If my photo of me and friends enjoying Bacardi was chosen to be used in an ad, it would actually be kinda cool and funny. However, I *still* would object to them doing it. Even though I'm not losing anything on this deal, and in fact I'm gaining an amount of amusement and notoriety, I still don't want Bacardi to reap the benefit. Why is that?

For me, it's this: Bacardi, who incidentally, have done nothing wrong - they are my hypothetical example. In fact, let's just call them BigCorp instead. BigCorp expect to be able to use my photo, without reciprocating in kind. If I had tried to use BigCorp's images or music or logo, for my own purposes, and it had come to their attention, then they would have sued me into the ground.

It may be that they had little choice in the matter. That they were merely acting in a way that they perceived the prevailing legal and commercial environment obliged them to do. Regardless, the upshot from my perspective is that they would have sued me into the ground.

And that isn't cool. There is a groundswell of resentment in me for the way our cultural heritage - all the music and t.v. and movies and images and adverts and logos that surround us, the things that have come to form our whole cultural milieu, have been prised from our fingers, by gradually increasing legal boundaries, such that none of us as individuals, owns it any more.

Copyright used to be of limited scope. It was designed to prevent the wholesale appropriation of creative works such as books, which were being copied and republished and sold by third parties unconnected with the author. This is a fairly obnoxious behaviour, and one I'm prepared to condemn, and I accept that introducing copyright to prevent it seems like a good idea.

However, since the 1970's the scope of what copyright is applicable to has expanded and expanded, way beyond its original remit. Instead of being triggered by the commercial activity of a large book (re)publishing entity, it is now triggered and invoked by the tiniest of non-commercial personal behaviours, not just publishing books, but giving a song to a friend, or drawing a comic for your blog in your bedroom that incorporates the distinctive likeness of a character you like.

Things that used to be common and socially acceptable (eg. giving an album you like to a friend) are now clearly illegal and can get you sued for your life savings plus draconian life-changing conditions. We can no longer give the songs we like to our friends. We can't post parts of our culture on YouTube. We can't put it on our blogs, or use it in any way we feel like. We have been unwillingly converted into pure consumers of culture, instead of participants. We have been robbed of something we used to have.

I strongly agree with Banksy, who feels that if any corporate image or logo or advert is shoved into my face in a public space (e.g. billboards, but also tv or on the web), then it is, from that moment on, mine to do with as I wish. If I wish to appropriate the image, or augment it with daubings of my own, then why should anyone have the right to stop me? (*huge separate discussion reqd here to justify this, obviously. Maybe later.)

But this, obviously, has been utterly repudiated by the copyright industry, acting in concert with BigCorp lobbyists, has used legal strong-arm tactics to deny me the ability to so much as sing happy birthday in my own restaurant without paying royalties, never mind ripping off BigCorp advertising materials to form my own pastiche. I resent that. I've been putting up with it for years, and in return BigCorp has earned my ill-will on this topic.

So in answer to the question "Can Facebook's partners use your photos for promotional purposes? It'll be funny and cool!" I have to reply "No you can't. I agree that it would be kinda funny and cool, but on this topic you have seriously annoyed me. We are not friends. You cannot use my photos. Now piss off."