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Who owns an image?


[image] A captured still from an encountered video left behind on an electronic device in a consumer goods store, 2015.

I got in trouble the other day … again

Its not the first time I have been questioned for appropriating, using or capturing images of images. This time it was far less conclusive (in my opinion) but just as problematic, I guess. In one of my earlier journal entries titled pattern recognition :: I listed a series of quotes from some writers and thinkers who reference patterns and the importance of sequence and structure in the understanding of the world around us. I set about searching the web and decided to use an iconic image of Marshal McLuhan by the photographer Henri Dauman as my ‘poster-child’ image.

I had contacted Mr. Dauman and asked him for his permission, but in my haste I posted the image before him granting it, and subsequently he wanted to charge me an exorbitant fee for using it. I removed the image gave him a sincere and humble apology and searched the web for an alternative. I later went on to find out that Henri Dauman and the New York Times had successfully sued the Andy Warhol Estate for an image that Warhol had appropriated for his work ‘16 Jackies’ from a Dauman photo titled ‘A Sorrowing Family Marches Together,’ showing Jackie, Robert and Edward in the funeral procession (, so I suppose, I shouldn’t mess with him.

In a more recent incident I was pulled-up for ‘taking’ photos of individuals from a ‘demonstrator’ device, which are commonly found in technology stores. It’s part of an on-going project of mine which involves observing the way that humans continue to expand and multiply their digital image into shared spaces. I am interested in the performative ‘culture’ a camera instigates and how we are ‘leaving’ traces of ourselves in digital form on various devices; the implications that this might have to the ‘ownership’ of an image and what value that image might carry for the ‘holder’ of that image.

It raises some interesting issues for me as I believe that the image is now intrinsically part of the ubiquitous digital public domain. Although an image might ‘resides’ on an electronic device, in a consumer goods store, I don’t know that it means that the image ‘belongs’ to the retailer; and even though it may temporarily be ‘situated’ on an apparatus I don’t think it ‘belongs’ to that device either. In a way the image that is ‘left-behind’ is no different than walking down the street and capturing a passer-by or photographing an album cover from a second hand shop or the walls of some hipster bar toilet. The individuals, often its more than one, consciously ‘leave’ their images behind for someone else to ‘find’. It’s like a ‘tag’ or a bit of ‘techno-urban-graffiti’ (maybe there’s a better word for it), for me, it’s the digital equivalent of the ‘Kilroy Was Here’ mark. The recording of the image is not done for the benefit of the retailer or the device for that matter, it was made for someone else, it becomes a mark to be encountered, and if I decide to take it away with me, to extend the life of that image, what’s wrong with that? I know I am on some shaky legal grounds here but it makes me wonder about the ‘value’ of the image. The image ‘left’ then goes on to be part of that device. In a way it enhances the ‘features’ of the device by making the device more appealing to the consumer, by ‘showing-off’ its capabilities to ‘capture’, ‘record’ and ‘play-back’. By exploiting the residual image it hypes-up the ‘product benefits’ and increases the desirability of the product by demonstrating its pixel-perfect ability to represent colour, motion, skin-tones, etc. The image ‘left’ has now taken on an added unwilling function and its intent is ‘hijacked’ for the benefit of some unknown entity who is only concerned with ROI’s, KPI’s and stakeholder investments.

I was told by the retail floor person that the store upheld the privacy of the individuals and that they deleted the images after ‘some time’; of course even after the image is ‘removed’ it still remains on that hard drive, in another form (topic for a different discussion). They understood that we were in a public space, although technically it probably isn’t, because that space ‘belongs’ to the corporates who rent it, and that they wanted me to ask permission, which I then did, but was then denied consent. So, I am not sure where that leaves things, but it opens up some further questions around the ‘ownership’ of an image, the ‘value’ that the image carries, its scale within an ‘economy’ and who benefits from its ‘value’? It also makes me think more about the hidden ‘shadows’ of information, the ‘exchange’ that an image actions, its ‘employment’ as a commodity and its position within virtual spaces.


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