Do you see the image above the text? I chose it without the artist’s approval from this website but traced the origin of the image back to this website. Should I feel guilty about it? I’ve done it hundreds of times before. If I stand guilty of this crime, I stand guilty of many others too.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume I’m not alone. The Internet is a vast cauldron of video-sharing, link-sharing, knowledge-sharing, and yes, image-sharing. The spirit of the Internet seems to be that of a free culture. We are less concerned with property rights in cyberspace, and more concerned with community and conversation.

I’m writing this essay because I want to know what are the claims to ownership on the Internet. Nobody seems to know the answer to this question. There is no absolute law we can refer to. And if there is an absolute law, then the spirit of the Net seems to challenge that rule, provoke the law, even mock its upholders. But there are also some of us who place a high value on the individual and therefore demand the individual know her work is being shared; we must ask her approval.

If getting an artist’s approval to post her image on my site is necessary and universal, then I should probably go back and obtain a plethora of approvals. Surely some will not be granted and then I must find another approval and another. Does it seem to you that this is the way things work on the Net? Or do people merely take what they like (like myself) and showcase it. Keep in mind in no way am I trying to pass off these images as my own. In fact, I credit the artists here. But I do not go so far as to ask each and every one of them if I can post their pictures. Many are in fact dead.

The Internet poses this contradiction. We recognize that file-sharing is rampant and that the wheels and cogs of the Web involve a dissemination of information; and yet we also feel the twinge of our old system of rights, copy rights, property rights, etc. To what extent is cyberspace a common space? And to what extent is it privatized? At what point should one say, “No, that’s not yours; that’s mine. I know I put it out there for all of you to see, but I only wanted it to appear on my site and not anyone else’s.”

Luckily nobody has ever said this to me. And if they wanted their image taken down, I would immediately do so. But I do not feel the need–in this wave of free-culture dissemination–to ask each artist for the approval to use their image.

I was provoked into writing this essay because of a post on a favorite blog of mine. The article, entitled “How to use Hyperlinks in Blog Fiction” didn’t specifically address copyright, but the nebulous area of Internet copyright turned up in the comments.

Bekah, a blog fiction writer, wrote:

“Yes, linking to things should be fine, although not if you pretend it’s your own work. But otherwise, of course that works. But putting non-stock images in blogs– definitely a copyright infringement, even if you give credit. It is true that a lot of illegal activity occurs on the web, but it’s also true that many lawsuits have followed. This isn’t likely in any case, but I don’t want to get near that.”

I don’t know much about the “many lawsuits” of Internet copyright law. What I’m more familiar with is the excess of abuses of copyright law. Especially surrounding file sharing. In the music industry in particular, copyright law is bending toward the file-sharers’ favor. Apple has removed the copyright protection on its mp3s and the music industry has publicly declared that it will no longer sue individual file-sharers.

Bekah continues:

“That being said, I don’t think it’ll ever be okay to post someone else’s picture on your blog without permission, but I don’t think that anyone is suggesting that you can or should do that.”

Now, artists who do not want their images shared take precautions. Some photos on Flickr for example will not copy to your hard drive because the artist has formerly set restrictions on them. In this case, it is impossible for me to copy them and the issue is moot. But what about in the cases where I can copy people’s pictures. Is it wrong?

Another blogger, who runs an art blog called Vince’s Ear, writes:

“Well, Chris that’s an interesting question because copyrights and copyright law can be interpreted in a number of different ways, including in the courts. The main thing for me to know is something called “Fair Use.” I won’t be able to sell a copyrighted image in any certain form, but I can perfectly legally display the image on my site for educational purposes.”

He goes on to say:

“Sorry for such a long response but I’d mainly say if a blogger is just putting images on a site, there is no need to worry at all, it’s Fair Use. If you were to print and sell the Novel of Life, make sure any illustrations are in the Public Domain, or you have permission if they’re not.”

I consider my writing educational and therefore the “Fair Use” clause may apply to me. The educational purpose behind this essay (and its adjoining image) is to make people think. But I must be honest here. I pick the images for aesthetic reasons mainly. This reflects a deeper attitude I have about the Internet, art, and information.

I suggest we are entering a new model of human relations, one based on the macro level of exchange, not the micro level. The individual will benefit from this system just as she benefited from the old system; she may even benefit more. When information/art/work is shared by the media, libraries, universities, publications, and organizations more fluidly and freely, there is less emphasis on individual compensation and more on communal benefit. Pictures, photographs, and images are floating around everywhere. If you wanted to track down every “thief” who re-posted an image on the Internet, you would be swimming against the current not with it. The current is in favor of shared knowledge and shared art.

It will take us some time to re-imagine ourselves with fewer boundaries. Because that’s what this all points to. The boundaries are dissolving all around us, geographical, political, cultural, racial, economic. The mutual exchange of ideas, images and texts will benefit us all, as it already has. We will only see this when we see it as giving work/information/art to each other, rather than taking it.

I am an artist myself. I write novels. But I’ve chosen not to pursue the path of traditional publishing (A) because it is crumbling and (B) because I feel I am part of a different economic model. I’d rather give my content away for free. What is a publisher but a protector, someone to handle my money? I don’t need a publisher. What I need is an audience. When I find an audience, I will get paid by myself.

The tectonic plates are shifting. We will soon come to realize that the proliferation of an artist’s work is worthwhile to everyone, artist, community and God. (I don’t believe in God but I think He will benefit too.) So called “property rights” in an online world is a chimera.

Silvio Gaggi’s scholarly work elucidates these truths. In From Text to Hypertext , the distinction between print and online worlds is made evident:

“Walter J. Ong argues that ‘print creates a new sense of the private ownership of words’ and that a ‘resentment at plagiarism’ develops with writing. Hypertext, in contrast, reinforces a sense of learning more as a communal than an individual endeavor. It creates situations in which individual contributions are likely to get lost within the conversation as a whole, and it creates new kinds of communities emancipated from physical, geographical, or political boundaries.”

This book written in 1997 presages much of what is going on today. The author uses the term “hypertext” to describe the textual networks of the Internet. While that word sounds outdated, the gist of it has relevance. Hypertext is shared text, linked text, common text. Blogging is a form of hypertext. From their niches blogs are woven into the greater body of the Net. Blogging is also a conversation. Search engines determine the relevance and popularity of a site based on its links. Complex algorithms pick up on strong and weak links and thereby rank the page. This essentially means that the search engine, that great, sacred filter of online knowledge, values conversation and exchange over private ownership. In essence, what is shared is of higher value than what is not.

Silvio talks about the two mindsets behind the print and online world:

“Individuals accustomed to an ethical system based on the book regard any infringement on their authorial rights or any use of a published text, without appropriate permission, as a moral and legal wrong . . . In contrast, individuals who have become accustomed to hypertextual exchange tend to regard any impediment to free exchange as a serious wrong. The free development and dissemination of knowledge is more important than always giving precise credit where credit is due.”

And here:

“Richard A. Lanham says that ‘electronic information seems to resist ownership’, and and Landow argues that ‘from the point of view of the author of hypertext, for whom collaboration and sharing are of the essence of ‘writing,’ restrictions on the availability of the text, like prohibitions against copying or linking, appear absurd, indeed immoral, constraints”.

So where do we stand on Internet Copyright Law? Should I feel guilty for posting the image above this article? I’m looking for answers.