read the fine print, part I: CJS photo contest

Today, I received a call for submissions for a photography contest run annually by my university’s Center for Japanese Studies. I’ve always put this to the side before, but since photography is one of my main activities in life, I looked into it today.

(Aside: this is going to be a two-parter in the interest of space. The other issue this brought up for me was that whole “photography and the real” that I posted about a few months ago. Coming soon.)

The two main questions I had were, of course, could I submit more than one photo, and more important, did acceptance of the photo in the contest come with a price?

Of course, what I’m talking about here are my intellectual property rights as an artist.

This has come up often in my personal and professional lives, and since I research book history and the publishing world – including the history of copyright law in various countries – this question is always interesting and important to me. It’s not one we think about in too much detail that often. As for myself, at least, I did not think about this much before I began serious research into book history, and also more aware of and interested in free & open source projects (software, educational resources, etc.) and Creative Commons.

My old equation was: I made it = I have copyright. It’s my stuff. People have to ask me whether it’s okay to use it, and they can’t make money off of it.

This is kind of the fundamental basis of copyright – monopoly rights, of profit, over one’s own work. However, when reality sets in, that theoretical basis goes more or less out the window.

The issue is, how do we distribute our work? How do we get published? How can we participate in a community of discourse, like the academic community or news channels or in magazines, through legitimate publications? What is the trade-off? Where does the power lie?

I asked myself these questions, and also where my own limits were, when I first noticed the caveat in many journals’ submission guidelines. For many academic journals, if not most, when you have an article accepted – a great feat and honor, especially for a grad student in the humanities like myself! – you also turn over your rights to the journal. That’s right: you trade your copyright for legitimacy and exposure and credibility.

You could stand your ground and refuse to submit work to publications that demand these rights. I am seriously considering this. But a scholar won’t be taken seriously without peer review – and rightly so – so we are left in a dilemma. If there is no way to publish in a way that will be taken seriously without making a major moral compromise, how can I do my job as a professional? Is my career going to die right where it is now, with no publications in academic journals, because of a refusal to give up my death grip on my very specific rights?

Why am I asking this question when I’m talking about a photo contest? Well, I read the fine print. It turns out that I can submit multiple photos. Great!

It also turns out that through a horrible twist of fate – a horrible irony you might say, given my enthusiasm for and extensive use of Creative Commons licensing – there are conditions on how the work must be licensed if it wins. It needs to have a Creative Commons license.

“Great! This is wonderful!” I should be thinking this, right? But here’s the even-more-fine print: the work must use a Creative Commons Attribution license. What’s the problem?

It’s missing my major requirements for licensing my work: 1) non-commercial, and 2) share-alike. To translate that into English, the rights I always reserve in my work are my monopoly rights to charge money for it, and to stipulate that if someone else modifies my work and attributes the original to me, they have to release it under the same CC license than the original was.

The fine print also makes the clear point that the University of Michigan will use and modify my work in any way they see fit, although they will attribute it to me. This isn’t so different from signing over your copyright to another entity, although the major difference is that I’m signing away my copyright to EVERY other entity. The only right I’m still reserving is that it has to be attributed to yours truly.

I get a lot of questions about why I haven’t submitted my work to photography contests or shows. Honestly, part of it is wondering if I have any work that is the kind that would win a contest. I like to take pictures of puddles on concrete with cigarette butts floating in them, not Mt. Fuji at dawn. But now I’ve realized another reason why I am not going to be entering a lot of contests.

My rights – that death-grip – is a really important piece of my creative self. Yes, I do CC-license my work, but the only right I give up is someone having to ask to reproduce my work elsewhere as long as they attribute it to me. I am happy about that. But I am not happy about allowing others to commercialize my work without asking me, or modifying it without asking me (although the latter is not always true). Copyright isn’t just a question for Hollywood and file-sharing disputes and fair use and abstract arguments.

Many of my readers are current and future academics, artists, photographers, and writers. Your work is important. Your work is yours. But depending on your priorities and your willingness to compromise, it may not be for long. My only words to you are to read the fine print, and think long and hard about which rights you will trade out of necessity, and those that you can’t afford to lose.

* Addendum: As I’ve mentioned before, I’m CC-licensing my dissertation when it comes out. Every educational and reference resource, along with all of my blog posts, on my in-development web site will be CC-licensed. And I am going to try my hardest to only publish articles in journals that allow me to keep doing this – not to “have a CC license” but allow me to retain the specific rights that I care about. I am not sure where this will take me in the future, but I am going to continue to read the fine print.

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