Musings on Photography

The Perils of Giving Things Away

Posted in web issues by Paul Butzi on February 17, 2008

A little while ago, Paul Lester wrote an interesting post on his blog about how some photographers want to keep their techniques secret, and how he preferred to just share freely. I’m inclined to be a ‘no secrets’ person – like Paul, I get more enjoyment out of spreading knowledge than I get out of hoarding it. At the same time, I do understand how someone who’s put a lot of time and effort into techniques might want to keep them for himself, so that he can extract money from the result of his labor. I’m a big believer in intellectual property rights.

Often, though, when we give things away, good things happen. I was mightily impressed, for example, at the tremendous benefit that the photo community got when Bill Atkinson gave away his outstanding profiles for the Epson 7600/9600 printers. In one simple gift, Atkinson vaulted inkjet printing of photos forward tremendously. (Thanks, Bill.) Sometimes, though, when we give things away free, our plans go astray.

Yesterday, I happened on a interesting web service ( that helps you look for websites that have copied stuff off your website. It’s a problem I’ve had in the past, and so I thought I’d explore this service a bit, and use the free trial. Sure enough, the service found some websites that appeared to have content taken from my website.

One of the things I found was a set of B&W photoshop actions being sold by Mike Warren that used a set of tone curves. That’s nothing new – I published an article on toning B&W photos using tone curves in Photoshop way back in 2004. The surprising thing is that Mr. Warren’s advertisement for this set of photoshop actions specified that it included a set of tone curves, and the names of the curves he included exactly matched the curves I offered for download free of charge, in that very article. Now, some names might match, but to have ALL of the names match the names on my curves, EXACTLY – that’s not likely a coincidence. Especially since one of the curves was built for friend of mine, Denny Wagner, and the curve bears Denny’s name.

So I sent Mr. Warren email, asking what the source of the curves was. And he confirmed that, sure enough, he’d just taken the curves off my website, added a few photoshop actions of his own, rolled the whole thing together, and was selling it for $20. Nowhere in the package that he sends to customers does he indicate that he took the curves from my website. Nowhere in the package does he indicate that the curves are available for no cost. Nowhere in the package does he even acknowledge my unknowing contribution to his product.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. If you give something away for free, I guess you ought to expect that some enterprising person will snap it up and start selling it. I guess I should have included a ‘license’ in the download that stipulated that you could use the curves for free, but please don’t package them up and sell them to line your own pocket.

Friends have told me that I’m too cynical; apparently I’m not cynical enough. This little incident certainly won’t make me start keeping things secret. But it sure will make me start including little ‘licenses’ when I offer stuff for free on my website in the future.

3 Responses

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  1. ejeschke said, on February 17, 2008 at 11:54 am

    It seems to me this is perfect use for a Creative Commons license (Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike or variant, see licenses here

    I know many photographers are extremely concerned about copyright issues, but in the case where you are freely making something available intentionally, the creative commons licenses are crafted by some sharp legal minds and probably will carry more “weight” both informally and legally (should you ever need it), than a self-crafted, informally-worded license.

  2. Rosie Perera said, on February 17, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    I just tried CopyScape, and it found a site which it thought had ripped off content from my blog. Turned out it was a site that I had quoted and given proper credit to (including a link) in this post on my blog! Hmmph!

  3. Paul said, on February 18, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    Thanks for the site, Paul. I checked, and so far, I’m good. It came up with a couple of things, but they were from feed sites, so no problem.

    That’s too bad when you give something away freely and then someone takes it and starts to sell it. I’ll have to look into that creative common license.

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