Copyright-Worried Photo Labs Spurn Jobs

By BRIAN BERGSTEIN, AP Technology Writer

Charlie Morgan says that if it weren’t for digital photography, he wouldn’t have a bustling business that specializes in publicity shots for musicians. That’s because Morgan – perhaps being a bit modest – says he’s not a very good photographer. He relies on Photoshop editing software to make his work look sharp.

But digital sometimes presents a puzzling problem.

When Morgan’s mother and a client recently took CDs with some of his shots to a printing lab, the photo technicians spurned them. They said that since the shots seemed to have been taken by a professional, printing the pictures might be a copyright violation.

The situation is not unusual, and it’s getting trickier in our digital age.

Copyright law requires photo labs to be on the lookout for portraits and other professional work that should not be duplicated without a photographer’s permission. In the old days, questions about an image’s provenance could be settled with a negative. If you had it, you probably had the right to reproduce it.

Now, when images are submitted on CDs or memory cards or over the Web, photofinishers often have to guess whether a picture was truly taken by the customer – or whether it was scanned into a computer or pilfered off the Internet.

That leads to some awkward moments at photo desks when customers’ images get barred for essentially looking too good.

Like others who have been told their work was unprintable, Morgan is frustrated that photo labs lack clear standards.

“They really don’t have anything etched in stone,” said Morgan, who lives in Plant City, Fla. “The person that works in the photography section of Wal-Mart could take a break, someone from the underwear department could take their place, and they could decide to print the picture.”

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Jacquie Young said her company’s photo departments are instructed to err on the side of protecting copyrights, even if that means a conflict with an insistent customer. She would not say what signs of professionalism the photofinishers are told to look for.

In the printing labs for the Kodak EasyShare Gallery, the photo Web site formerly known as Ofoto, professionally taken pictures are placed on the walls to remind technicians of such images’ telltale signs, such as school photos and stylish backdrops in posed pictures of children.

“The majority of them are easy to spot,” said David Rich, vice president of marketing. “We’re doing our job as a good corporate citizen to protect the rights of others, just like we want our brand and our copyright to be protected.”

There’s also a more tangible concern: Professional photographers have successfully sued photofinishers for allegedly being lax about enforcing copyrights.

Steve Noble, who oversees regulatory affairs at the Photo Marketers Association, believes the situation will remain hazy unless copyright laws that were written in a different technological era are altered to reflect the possibilities of digital dissemination. Or, he said, for practical purposes photographers should consider charging more up front for their work and then signing away future copyright.

“We’ve got a law written back in the 1970s and we’re trying to apply 2005 conditions to it,” Noble said. “When you’ve got an eight-megapixel camera out there, which is what used to be reserved for professionals, and it takes professional quality, how is the processor going to know?”

Sometimes, even approval from a professional photographer doesn’t settle the issue.

Kacie Powell takes pictures for Centre College in Danville, Ky. Several times, her Centre co-workers have been turned away when they tried to get her images printed at Wal-Mart, where employees said the shots looked “too professional.”

So Powell went in and signed an affidavit stating that she was the photographer and that it was OK for the pictures to be printed. She included portraits of the Centre employees who were authorized to print her pictures.

Still, when one of the co-workers tried to print candid photos from Centre’s graduation this year, Wal-Mart said no. The woman had to return to Centre and get another letter from Powell before Wal-Mart would make the prints.

“Apparently, they need something new each time pictures are printed,” Powell said.

Last fall, Bill Wolfson of Columbus, Ohio, went to Walgreen’s to order Christmas cards with a photo that he had taken in his backyard with an eight-megapixel Canon and retouched with Photoshop. It’s a striking image: an extreme closeup of two bright red berries on a green yew shrub tinged with soft sunlight.

Walgreen’s phoned Wolfson with the “too professional” rejection. He responded that he was flattered but insisted that he was a “serious amateur” who took the shot himself.

He pointed out that he had signed the photo in the corner so it could be used on his Christmas cards.

The photo supervisor wouldn’t budge. How did she know Wolfson was really the photographer and hadn’t forged the name on the processing order?

Not until Wolfson went into the store with his driver’s license was everything resolved. The pictures were printed, and “the supervisor, three employees and I all stood around the cash register admiring my handiwork,” he said.

Despite the pleasant ending, Wolfson considers the episode silly. After all, anyone with photo-editing software easily could add his name to the bottom of someone else’s photograph.

“It’s a real problem,” Wolfson said. “And I think it’s going to even get worse.”

sourceAssociated Press