Potential lottery winners



How different would our social policies toward privileged classes be if we disregarded the very small chance that we might one day join their club?

Much of our modern thinking about intellectual property is shaped by jackpot thinking, the daydream that we might someday write a song or take a photograph or write a book or have an idea that strikes the public’s fancy—or in the phrase of the day, go viral. We see it happen to others, and we sympathize with their efforts to force people to pay them for their bit of intellectual property—not because it is a wise way to structure a society, but because if it ever happens for us we want to be able to cash in as well.

Here is an overly long article which looks at what happened when two citizen photographers snapped photos and then published them via Twitter. Both photos captured the public imagination and were reproduced widely, by bloggers and twitterers and news organizations. I’ll join in the spirit of the thing by reproducing them here. The first is a pretty cool view of the final space shuttle launch, taken by Stefanie Gordon from an airplane window.


The second is a photo of the plane that landed in the East River, taken by Janis Krums from a ferry window.


The article goes on and on about how the photographers weren’t fairly compensated for their work, what needs to be done about it, how you can protect yourself in similar situations, and so on. But amusingly neither Stefanie Gordon nor Janis Krums seem to care much that they didn’t make money off their photos. Stephanie says:

"I never even thought about what could happen,” she said. “To me, it’s just a picture. I tweeted and put my phone away. … I had four hours of sleep and wasn’t thinking. I was trying to spend time with my dad. I’ve never been a person who feels like I need to make money off of everything.  I just put it out there for people to see."

Janis is a little less sanguine, but still far from outraged:

"It’s kind of crazy that after two years there is still nothing in place to deal with this issue,” Krum said. “It’s still the wild, wild West right now.”  In some ways, it seems more socially acceptable to take advantage of a naïve rights holder. “Organizations say, ‘Well, it’s a regular person we don’t even have to compensate them.’ They do things they wouldn’t do with a professional photographer," Krum said.

I think (I hope!) that social media is eroding our sense of property in these areas. The intrinsic thrill of posting a cool photo and having it go viral takes the edge off a desire to cash in. We see cool photos of tornados, space shuttles, earthquakes, and the rest every day, every hour, every minute. Everyone is taking them. The jackpot is no longer getting a cool photo published in Life magazine next week, but being the first to get it into the tweetstream. Taking the time to protect your “rights” to a cool photo is just that more leadtime for someone else to launch a similar photo into cyberspace.

Photographers used to bolster their case for compensation by saying that it required time, equipment, money, and skills to take a cool photo. Well, the two photos above are as cool as any I’ve seen lately, and they were taken by ordinary people using unremarkable equipment in a place where they happened to be for other reasons. Should they be compensated for that?


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