Using "Borrowed" Material
By Jessica Silliman
Sam Jones was an independent video and television editor who
did freelance work for various television outlets. He had been
in the industry for three years and had produced and edited
nearly fifty shows and advertisements when he was hired by a
company that was a major sponsor of a hit television series.
Sam's job was to put together commercials for the main corporate
sponsor of the series.
In the commercial, individuals were talking in a voice-over
while pictures were being shown of what they were talking about.
Sam's task was to find these pictures of "the ocean, the
redwoods and Lake Tahoe," that corresponded to the audio.
Sam's producer for the project was disorganized and gave Sam
little time to work on the project. The deadline was so close
that Sam had no time to ask for permission to use any of the
images he found online.
Sam had recently visited Lake Tahoe for a wedding, so he used
some of his own photographs for that scene, and also passed
them off as "the ocean."
For pictures of redwoods, Sam "borrowed" them from
a website without permission. With an excess of searchable photo
sites online, it was hardly difficult to find an adequate image.
When Sam confronted the producer about using copyrighted material,
his producer gawked at the idea of extending the deadline to
wait for a response from the owner of the photographs. He told
Sam, "Just get the job done."
"He had no conviction about 'borrowing' content from the
Internet and not even considering taking the time to ask permission,"
The producer said that Sam had to turn the project in on time
no matter what. If he didn't, he would lose the job.
As a photographer himself, Sam wanted to give credit where
credit was due for the images used in the commercial, but, because
the images were landscapes-rather than photos of people, he
felt there was less harm in using them without permission. Plus,
he had access to numerous computer programs to crop out the
Frustrated with the producer's response to his request for
an extended deadline, Sam was forced to use the copyrighted
images of the redwoods without legal right.
Unknown to his boss, Sam had contacted the copyright holder
of the photo of the redwoods, but hadn't heard a response before
the deadline. The commercial moved toward completion. Weeks
later, the copyright holder told Sam he could use the images.
This made Sam feel somewhat reassured, but what if the holder
hadn't granted permission? The commercial was already in the
last stages of production and would be irreversible. Plus, he
would have to tell his boss that he had asked for permission
when his boss had said it wasn't necessary. Sam's choice to
go behind his boss 's back could have landed him in even more
- Do you think it is right or wrong to use copyrighted images
without permission for a project like Sam's? Why or why not?
- Do you think that Sam was right or wrong to contact the
copyright holder of the redwoods photo without his boss knowing?
Why or why not?
- Is there any ethical difference in using a copyrighted portrait
versus a copyrighted landscape photo?
- If you had been in Sam's position, how would you have dealt
with Sam's boss?
Jessica Silliman was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at The Markkula
Center for Applied Ethics.