We were more than a little surprised last week when what should have been a manini in-house operational issue blew up into a social media war with supporters of Donald Trump.
The intensity of people who are true believers in candidates and causes doesn’t shock me. You need look no further than the comments on stories about GMOs, or guns, or the Honolulu rail project to see that very often there is no middle ground for either side.
What surprised me, in this case, was how little people who are deep into Facebook and Twitter seem to know about the rules of the social media game, not to mention their lack of knowledge about how the media works. Not surprising, as a result: No matter how much we tried to explain our reasoning in comments and replies, they were having none of it.
It struck me that there it might be a good opportunity to discuss — in more than 140 characters — the important journalistic issue at stake here.
So here’s the story:
On Memorial Day, our photographer Cory Lum took some really nice photos of the ceremony at the National Cemetery of the Pacific. We published them at the time and have used at least one in a couple stories since then.
Here’s the photo in question:
Nice shot, right?
Apparently someone on the Trump campaign staff thought so too; because unbeknownst to us, it ended up in a video on the Trump campaign website. The short video touted Trump’s support for veterans and his view that other candidates just don’t stack up to him on veterans’ issues.
The Army public affairs staff at Fort Shafter sent us a note to let us know our photo was in Trump’s video. At first, they’d thought it was an Army photo, but they quickly realized it wasn’t. A public affairs officer told us Army photos can be used because the government is, in essence, a public domain; but they’re also prepared to issue a disclaimer that use doesn’t constitute an endorsement by the photographer or the Army.
Here’s a screenshot of our Facebook post that shows our photo on the left and a screen grab from the Trump video on the right:
Pretty clearly, Cory’s photo had ended up in a Trump campaign ad. Note that the hard-to-miss credit line in the upper right corner had been removed.
So we did what we normally do when websites or publications use our stuff without asking us or obtaining permission. We reached out to the Trump campaign to request that it remove our photo from the candidate’s site.
I emailed various campaign staffers. Nada. Until Saturday, that is, when I got a short email from Trump’s campaign press secretary saying she was passing my note on to “the team.”
I sent a message through the “contact us” form on the campaign website. That got me an immediate auto reply thanking me for my support.
So I called the number on the campaign’s home page but over the course of two days no one answered. Not even a voice mail to leave a message.
Finally, I tweeted at them.
No tweet back from the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account.
But the tweet got passed around on social media by Trump supporters, Trump opponents, the national journalism community and who knows who else.
Which leads me to want to talk about what just happened. And why. And why we think it’s an important issue to discuss.
The first issue we have with this is that the campaign simply ripped off our photo. Plain and simple.
Our site is clearly copyrighted and all material on it belongs to us. We’ve paid for it, after all, and Cory’s time spent on a holiday at a veterans’ ceremony certainly is no exception. The credit line identified the photographer and the organization for which the photo was taken.
I’ll agree that photos on the Internet are a bit tricky in some regards. So I don’t expect people who don’t deal with this kind of thing regularly to know the rules.
Sorry, American Patriot. You’re just wrong.
Photos are the work of the photographer or, as in this case, are owned by the people who paid for them. Using them without permission of the copyright holder (again: that’s us) not only violates Facebook’s terms of service but is also against the law.
Here’s Facebook’s helpful guidance on this and its terms of service:
To be honest, we too have inadvertently used pictures that weren’t in the public domain. That’s happened twice that I know of since we launched Civil Beat in 2010. Both times, the photographer contacted us and we immediately paid their going rate for the use.
But I do expect Donald Trump’s media people, including the crew that puts together his very well-done videos, to know that you can’t go ripping protected material off a news organization’s website and not ask if it’s OK to use it.
Nonetheless, some tweeters said we were making much ado about nothing.
Others wanted us to sue him. Others suggested we ask for payment and be done with it.
— 𝕂𝕖𝕟𝕥 ℕ𝕚𝕤𝕙𝕚𝕞𝕦𝕣𝕒 (@kentnish) January 24, 2016
So here’s the real issue for us. It’s not about the money. It’s about the appearance of a conflict of interest, and the perception that we are supporting a campaign or an issue because we have either given them our photo to use “courtesy of Civil Beat” or gotten paid for it.
The same goes for our stories. We don’t allow political campaigns or special interest groups — including nonprofits — to repurpose our material. We’ll occasionally share photos or stories with other news sites or academic journals. But that’s it.
Last year we gave a photo of lava flowing into a graveyard on the Big Island to a small newspaper there to illustrate a story it was publishing for which it needed art. But when an anti-Kakaako development group wanted to republish one of our political cartoons in its newsletter, we said no.
Those are just two examples. We deal with this regularly. And occasionally, we do find other websites or Facebook pages using our material without permission. We contact them immediately and insist they take it down. Same as with the Trump campaign.
We’re an independent, nonpartisan news operation. Credibility and integrity are extremely important in our world. We can’t let efforts to undermine that go unchallenged.
So what finally happened with our photo on Trump’s website?
We ended up pursuing a formal copyright violation complaint with Facebook officials. The video was removed not too long after that.