Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

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," said Sam.

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 copyright logo.

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 trouble.

Discussion Questions:

  • 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.

June 2007


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