Sharing isn’t Stealing

In a recent column in the New York Times, Nick Bilton asks “Can your Camera Phone Turn You Into a Pirate?” He describes photographing images from a number of home design books to share with a contractor. Concerned that his behavior, Bilton seeks answers from several copyright experts and gets a mixed set of responses. (Most seemed to feel it bordered on infringement.)

For example, Charles Nesson, the Weld professor of law at Harvard said, “If people are taking a picture of a picture to take with them [their cell phones], then is it is exactly like the MP3 issue.”

Stan Liebowitz, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Dallas, also felt that cell phone photography was closer to piracy than not – “In the 1970s, everyone didn’t have a photocopier sitting in their home. Now everyone has a cellphone in their pocket that can easily copy anything.”

I’m certainly not a legal scholar but would it be a problem if I took the books out of the library and showed the pictures to my contractor? Or if I photocopied images? (The article goes into length on the role of photocopiers in copyright law during the 1970s.) What if I invited my contractor to join me at the bookstore to look at the images together without paying for the book? Would that be piracy?

Somehow, to me, this doesn’t make much sense. Is it a problem to take a book out of the library to show someone a photograph on a page? If it isn’t, then how is it a problem to take a photograph of that same photograph and show it to someone for the same purpose? I agree that the wholesale duplication and distribution of copyrighter materials isn’t OK but what Bilton describes sounds like it’s a long way from piracy.