SMH in copyright blunder over tweeted duck pic

The Sydney Morning Herald has apologised after being caught out using an image from social media without permission and claiming it was a reader’s photograph.

Trey Ratcliff, who runs the blog, wrote a blog post accusing the newspaper of breaching the Creative Commons licence on his site by using a photo of Florentijn Hofman’s Sydney Festival installation “Rubber Duck” and presenting the image as having been voluntarily submitted.

Image used with the permission of Trey Ratcliff.

The piece headed “I’m not a reader, Sydney Morning Herald” questioned whether staff at the newspaper understood the nature of a non-commercial Creative commons licence.

Ratcliff wrote the non-commercial licence he provides “is quite generous” and the website clearly explains the licence is only for non-commercial use of images.

“Now, I know newspapers are commercial, even though they are hemorrhaging money as people flock online to get more timely news and better photos… So, the commercial use is definitely a no-no,” wrote Ratcliff.

He also criticised the newspaper for presenting the image as: “a selection of our reader’s photographs of Rubber Duck.”

“I think it’s a bit rude not to give credit down there towards the bottom of the photo. Instead, they used that valuable space to indicate that ‘oh we’re just one big community with ‘our readers’ who take these pics for fun,’” he wrote.

The original photograph. Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff. Image used with the permission of photographer.

The New Zealand resident concludes by writing: “Oh no, I didn’t pay thousands of dollars to fly to your country and stay in a hotel and buy camera equipment so I could take photos of your duck to adorn your newspaper.”

Sean Aylmer, editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald, told Mumbrella the image had been found on a Twitter feed and that there was confusion over who owned the copyright on the image.

“We asked readers to send in their favourite pics of the duck, via Twitter. We received many,” said Aylmer, in an email to Mumbrella.

“The main image we used was not tweeted to us. We found it on a Twitter feed. We went back to the person who had tweeted the picture. At this stage we believed it was his.”

“On deadline he responded saying it was a retweet. We then Googled to find its origin and found a high resolution copy of the picture on thedailyblender blog (among others). By this point we were past deadline. We emailed thedailyblender immediately. They didn’t respond (not surprisingly because of the time of day). Turns out it wasn’t thedailyblender’s either.”

Aylmer conceded the newspaper failed to establish the copyright of the photo before publishing.

“At the end of the day we didn’t establish ownership of the picture and we should have. We have apologised to Trey Ratcliff,” said Aylmer.

Ratcliff told Mumbrella he has yet to receive the Herald’s apology.

“Perhaps they have placed a handwritten apology in the pouch of a kangaroo and it jumped in the wrong direction, for I have yet to receive it (or any digital facsimile thereof),” said Ratcliff.

The Sydney Morning Herald would not comment on whether they would now pay Ratcliff for the use of the image.

“That’s between him and us and not something we’ll talk about,” said Aylmer.

The incident comes a week after the newspaper itself published a story about the practice of people lifting other people’s photos and images.

Alan Knight, professor of journalism at the University of Technology Sydney, said the practice of media outlets publishing images from the web and social media was increasingly common.

“On the face of it they are being very naughty and somewhat unethical lifting someone else’s material but this is quite common practice on the web,” said Professor Knight.

“Under Creative Commons he should be protected but then again a lot of this depends on legal ability to enforce it. ”

The Herald is not the first newspaper to have used images without permission – two weeks ago London’s Evening Standard was caught out over the use of images in the London helicopter crash and reportedly offered to pay the person whose image it used as they would a picture agency.

Professor Knight said media outlets need to review their processes around publishing material sourced from the web.

“Newspapers need to examine this, especially when they are charging for the content. It has become an open field and they rarely get caught,” he said.

“People are in the habit lifting other people’s material, particularly images. Even though there are many ways, on Google for example, to search for copyright free material.”

Nic Christensen


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