Reflections on Digital Humanities and Technical Communications, Part 3 — Developing a Case Study to Teach Digital Image Use

Part 3 of Carolyn (Collie) Fulford‘s reflections on digital humanities in the context of teaching technical and professional writing. Originally posted March 4, 2018. Prof. Fulford was a fellow in the FHI-NCCU DH program in 2017-18. Find links to other posts in the series here.

cropped black & white headshot of Collie Fulford

Dr. Carolyn “Collie” Fulford, Director of First-year Writing, North Carolina Central University

I’ve been working a long time on developing course materials that help writers understand their obligations and rights when borrowing images to use in their own work. Serendipity gave me a chance to expand my teaching repertoire on this recently.

My usual approach: During my fall 2017 undergraduate professional writing course, I asked students to pay thorough attention to image reuse in online contexts.  I gave them  resources and tips and asked them to attend to principles of fair use.  I modeled and insisted they work with best practices in selecting and acknowledging image sources just as clearly as they work with quoted text.

This does not come naturally.

Our digital habits: Contemporary digital culture makes image borrowing as easy as breathing. Many images used and reused online don’t attribute their photographers or origins at all. Most social media tools don’t make it easy to caption images, either.  Complicating this is that longstanding creative practices of sampling, quilting, and otherwise picking up scraps of others’ work and repurposing it make direct source attribution feel to some like an impediment to the creative method.

Teaching fair use and image attribution techniques can sometimes feel like driving north in four lanes of southbound traffic. So I’m always looking for better ways to explain why these matter.

It matters when it’s YOUR work: An NCCU alumnus told me recently that this issue finally made sense to him when he noticed someone had picked up one of HIS photos and reused it without permission or attribution. Then he got it because he felt some type of way.

Last week,  an acquaintance described a more complex situation that illustrated multiple ethical issues around online image reuse. I won’t go into specifics because I’m seeking permission from the people involved to create a more detailed case study. Here’s my stab at doing so without identifying data.

In a nutshell: Professional X is told by friends that she should go visit a certain Facebook group because there’s an image of something unique of hers there.

Professional X visits the group and sees the image of her unique thing being used without credit by Grad Student Y to illustrate a survey.  Professional X contacts Grad Student Y and says “Hey that’s my thing.”

Grad Student Y says, “I found it on the internet.”

(This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? My students tell me that often when I ask about image sources.)

Professional X seems more bothered that her unique thing is posted without attribution than that the image is not credited to its source. She tells me she paid for the unique thing to be made custom for her use, then she paid a professional photographer to take the image and she uses it on her professional website.  On that site, she does not attribute the photographer, but then again, Professional X owns the image. That same image has been reused online in the context of a review of Professional X’s work and her unique thing.  The reviewer simply indicated “Image may be subject to copyright.”

Professional X and Grad Student Y are now in communication about how to proceed.  Professional X has asked my advice.

I suggested:

  1. In this case, the unique thing in the image is not the issue. Unattributed images of the thing are the issue.
  2. Professional X could credit photos on her own website as a professional courtesy, even if she paid for them.
  3. Professional X could request that Grad Student Y caption any reuses of the image: “Image by W. Used with permission of X.” (W being the photographer or studio. X being image owner Professional X or her website.)

Teaching this case: My suggestions above are not important when posing the problem to students, so I’ll leave them out of the case. I might share them after students analyze. My goal is to write up this case well enough that students can analyze it themselves, putting principles of fair use to the test in this complex situation. I’m excited about this opportunity to create a real world case study for my students. I’ll be learning something new.

For reference:

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