• Harry Campbell
    Harry Campbell

into the wild

The digital age has created a minefield not only for architects posting material on their own websites, but also on social media platforms that encourage users to share other people’s content, including copyrighted photos. Pinterest, for example, is an online bulletin board that lets participants organize and “pin” items of interest to their profiles. Participants can “follow” each other and pin others’ images to their own idea boards (hopefully with credits attached), making it a useful marketing venue. According to a Shareaholic study in January, Pinterest drives more traffic to websites than YouTube, Google+, and LinkedIn combined.

In reality, it’s impossible to control how information circulates on the Internet; technological capabilities have far outpaced legislative progress on this score. For example, current copyright laws are based on how widely licensed work is dispersed, Lightsey says. There are certain things a copyright owner can do that no one else can unless they have permission—broadcast the work, publish it, perform a play in a theater. When you show friends a photo or play music, you’re not violating those rights. But when you do it publicly, you are. “Courts have had difficulty applying traditional copyright laws to electronic media,” Lightsey says. So it’s best to proceed with caution.

Several months ago, Bob Borson, AIA, LEED AP, associate principal at Bernbaum Magadini Architects in Dallas, started using Pinterest to organize his photo library, but now is scouting other options. “Most of the things I pin are my images,” he says. “Now I have hundreds of followers and, other than a few clients who share their idea boards, I know almost none of them. My concern is that I can’t make a specific board for a client without everybody seeing it, so it exposes us to copyright issues.”

Minneapolis architect Charlie Simmons, principal of Charlie & Co. Design, downloads photos of each new project onto Houzz, an online community focused on residential design. Although his photographers retain copyright, he is allowed to use the images for marketing, including online, as long as the photographer is credited. And he makes use of the site’s privacy settings. “I’ve only made three idea books, looking for a particular wall color, and I don’t share them with clients,” he says. “Most of my clients who have a Houzz account will create an idea book and send me a password.”

That’s one way to limit personal liability. On the other hand, while Houzz insists that users get permission to post copyrighted material, the terms of service on its website state that participants must “authorize us and our affiliates, licensees and sublicensees, without compensation to you or others, to copy, adapt, create derivative works of, reproduce, incorporate, distribute, publicly display or otherwise use or exploit such content throughout the world in any format or media.”

It’s a difficult moment for photographers, too. Images shared online are small JPEGs that can’t be enlarged with quality. But sometimes the credit line is dropped, says Susan Gilmore, a Minneapolis-based photographer. “I sat one morning and kept adding my name to all the pictures on Pinterest that were mine. My copyright is in the metadata so it follows the image wherever it goes, but it’s not always visible.” She adds, “If someone wants to share my photos, come and ask me. If I’m in the loop I feel a little better.”

There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. “You can say no for the first five minutes, but after that you can’t,” says Erica Stoller, director of Esto, an architectural photo agency in Mamaroneck, N.Y. “I guess you have to say social media is a method of communication. We’re not going to send anybody a bill for sharing images on pinboards. If names are credited properly, that’s the least you can do. And you have to ask nicely. Just say please and thank you.”

Esto sees its photographer’s copyrighted images as akin to the architectural drawings for a single-family client: They can be used to build one house, but not an entire neighborhood. “I’m making you an original piece of work and telling you what you can do with it,” Stoller says. “By extension that’s come to mean what the architect can do to make more work for the firm. So we did broaden the definition, but trust that the architect won’t sell or give it to the sliding glass door manufacturer” for their marketing campaign.

Some photographers are charging more for the initial shoot to reflect a broader distribution. “We frankly charge architects a lot at the outset to do the photos, and then we want to see them everywhere,” says Boston-based photographer Peter Vanderwarker, who reluctantly is considering putting a watermark on his images. “These guys put my kids through college; I want them to be famous,” he says. “What’s important is that they spell my name correctly.”