The iStock Intellectual Property Double Standard

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iStock, a site that hooks up people who take pictures with people who are looking for pictures, has hit a rough patch. It appears a contributor to iStock recently had his video rejected. No, it wasn’t porn, nor was it a copy of somebody else’s work. It was a goldfish escaping from his bowl. You can see his video here.

The problem? He received the following from an iStock ‘inspector’:

“Sorry, but we feel that this clip is ‘inspired’ by another artist’s work, and we felt the overall comparison of the files held too many similarities. iStock aims to respect the integrity, creativity and copyright of each individual’s unique style. We felt this work may constitute infringement of intellectual property rights of the original work.”

The icing on the cake is that according to the contributer, the inspector involved with the decision also happens to have a video of his own on iStock. Yep, you guessed it. It is a video of a goldfish jumping from one bowl to another bowl. You can see that video here.

The problem here is a misunderstanding of intellectual property. Is it really possible for somebody to claim ownership of the idea of fish jumping out of its bowl? Does that mean only Ansel Adams can take pictures of the great outdoors? And only Anne Geddes can take pictures of naked babies?

If this was in fact the policy that iStock enforced (it’s not, there are thousands of ‘similar pictures’ on the site), this would be a lose-lose situation for nearly everybody. iStock customers lose because they will only have a limited number of choices. If you want a picture of a turtle and a birthday cake, you’re going to have to go to the one person who first uploaded a turtle and a birthday cake. What’s that? He only uploaded one? Sorry, nobody else can do it or it will infringe on his ‘unique style’.

And photographers will lose out also. Imagine being limited to only unique shots. Sorry, can’t take a picture of a girl in a field of flowers, it’s been done.

And if customers aren’t coming because of a bad selection, and photographers aren’t posting because of too many restrictions, then even those with the protected pictures lose out.

In my opinion, this is an indefensible position iStock is taking. If you look at its copyright page, it says nothing about using the ‘idea’ of another person. Take a look around the Internet. Nobody has a lock on the fish/bowl pictures. In fact, even on iStock you see similar images. Here and here.

The law does not allow you to patent an idea, and iStock shouldn’t try to enforce such a policy either.

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