The importance of asking permission

I recently attended the EARCOS conference, where some of the keynotes mentioned the importance of storytelling to send a message. So here’s a story…

Esme and I at Lake Erie

Once upon a time, I had a lovely little sister Esme. She was beautiful, loving, and had a quirky personality all her own. Everyone who knew her loved her, and felt that they were her special friend. She could make everyone feel special, and was great at bringing people together for her fun and games. Now of course, this being the digital age, many in my family had blogs, including her, and as it happened many photos of her ended up in cyberspace.

This is the hard part of the story, so be prepared. This lovely little 13-year old girl went for a run one day and never came back. She had encountered someone who knew nothing of who she was, and didn’t care, and this person stole her life away from her.

Now I’m not writing about this to tell her story and what happened to her, but simply to connect it to the issue that we’re concerned with, which is citing photos.

Esme Kenney

The picture you see of her was one that was provided for the media, who as is normal with these sorts of things takes quite an interest in such stories. Which was appreciated in a way, because it is nice to feel that the world cares when you have suffered a loss such as this. However the media, as is perhaps also normal, wanted more photos, and instead of contacting us, went out and raided all of our blogs to get more pictures of her. Now those blogs were public, we expect that people will read and use them. Yet for some of us, the context that these personal photos were taken and used for, was not how we wanted to remember them. For one of my relatives, a picture of her son with my sister was used in conjunction with a story about the person who took her life. This was very difficult for her, to see this picture of a happy moment associated with the horror of what happened after. Although it was no surprise that these images were taken and used in that way, it was also clear that, really, those reporters should have asked before using them.

Our solution was to contact the media and give them about 20 photos that we were okay with them using, and they were quite sensitive to this. Yet, these were professional journalists who didn’t take the time to ask for permission, who in fact when we asked justified their using the photos by saying it was on a public blog. Now while I would grant a certain inevitability of people using photos in this manner, it seems pretty cheeky for a journalist to try to justify it as okay when they made absolutely no effort to contact the owner of the blog.

So I really support this idea of citing our photos in what we publish. Yet, sometimes when I look at the current trends, it seems like copyright and ownership of these things is becoming murkier and murkier. When we encourage our students to do this, is it going to work to preserve this idea of attribution, or is it a last gasp before everything becomes public use?

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7 Responses to The importance of asking permission

  1. I want to respond to this powerful blog with such a deep message but can’t really find the words. Let me start by saying how brave I think it is of you to share this in your blog. It is truly a heartbreaking story and it is very shocking to hear how you had to deal with ‘professional’ journalists, who I think don’t deserve to be called professional in such cases. Secondly, I think it is through such stories that we realize both sharing or taking of the web is a personal business. Yet where is the privacy when it is for all to see and ‘use’?
    This is a thin line that is unclear to most people. It is getting murkier as you put it and as a result I think scarier. Not everyone knows what Creative Commons and Copyright mean and even if they do, how often do we come across someone who feels that it doesn’t apply to them. Like you mentioned, the journalists said it was their right to take the pictures that were on a ‘public blog’. Very cheeky indeed.
    Last night I went and added a Creative Commons to my kids blog in the hope that this will protect them in someway. After reading your post, I can only hope this is true but I realize there are no certainties. This is a scary thought!
    Thank you for being so open hearted. It has once again made me stop and think about what pictures and texts I post!

  2. Avatar of Meghan Meghan says:

    Thanks Sanne. I think we have to stand up for ourselves when we can and draw what lines are possible, but not expect that everyone or even anyone will do the right thing. The journalists were contrite after the fact and agreed to use only the photos we provided, but then there was someone else who used our photos in a much more twisted way, which we had no power over. Ultimately, we just had to wait for the attention they got with their story to disappear. So it takes equanimity if one is going to dive into the world of the web, because a lot of the content out there is not necessarily very nice, and sometimes people can take what we put out there and twist it for their own message. That said, the internet was also a huge blessing for us, because it allowed us to get the word out about what was happening, and gave the people that heard Esme’s story a place to share their thoughts, feelings and wish to connect and help. It’s all in how it is used.

  3. Meghan,

    Thank you so much for sharing such a powerful experience. I have always been more on the side of letting people do whatever they want with the ideas, photos, etc. that I create and that they don’t need to give me credit for what they have taken since I believe the world is a better place if we openly share. But your blog has made me rethink my position and I realize that this information can be used in ways that make the world a worse place as well. Now I’m seeing some value from having people cite me as a source as well as ask permission for my material. I must say that I love it when I read someone’s ideas that challenge the way I think so I appreciate what you have given me. Yesterday I wrote a blog that I questioned the need for all this citation. You can view it here. link to

  4. Avatar of Meghan Meghan says:

    Thanks for your comments Seth. Honestly, as I was rereading my post, I felt like my writing went astray a little bit. After all, I’m not sure I care about things being properly cited all the time, particularly with web photos, but rather just that we need to think before we just pick these pictures up and use them. This is particularly important with pictures that are from people’s lives. Yet with citation, the photo I used is one of Esme’s school pictures, yet I took it from a media article about her. So shall I cite the photo correctly? Do I cite the media article? The person who took the school photo? What to do?

    Perhaps it is my title that sums up how I feel, that it is the asking for permission that is important, not the citation. And even then, people have taken photos that I’ve taken of Esme and used them in beneficial ways, such as for fundraising efforts and such. I remember that one person, who I never even met, took on the cause that my husband and I were fundraising for in Esme’s name, and created “Causes” page on facebook for it. It was really nice in way, and yet I remember feeling slightly startled that she hadn’t asked for my permission first (and it was set up in a way that was slightly incorrect).

    That said, ask me for my opinion about using written content from the web, and you’ll probably get a different answer. Which makes me wonder if perhaps I’m a little biased towards originality and attribution in the written word, but not for images, and whether that’s really fair.

  5. Pingback: Private Footprints | COETAIL Online Cohort 2012-2013

  6. Avatar of kuebelherr kuebelherr says:

    Meghan thank you for sharing your story, I had no idea that you have suffered such a huge loss. I admire your courage to share this personal story that holds so much emotion.
    Examining the issue of citing sources and asking permission to use someone else’s media looks different through the lens of your story. It’s easy enough to search the internet for image, copy and paste them for whatever purpose you would like. Especially in Myanmar, where the copyright laws are not an issue. This is exactly what we don’t want our students doing, yet I know that I have been guilty of it. Your story shows the other side of the easy copy and paste tendencies we have. Who created this media, and what does it mean to them? How do my actions of using their media, without permission, affect the creator? These are questions I have had no reasons to personally consider. I agree that issues of copyright and ownership are becoming murkier and difficult to navigate. I appreciate you sharing your story because it will stay with me, and I will think twice about my citations, and how I teach my students about this issue. I think that introducing the Creative Commons website to our students is a good way to start or continue a class dialogue about these issues. Your story also highlights the importance of making these issues personal to our students, to connect these issues in a meaningful way they will retain.

  7. Clint Hamada says:

    Such a powerful post. Thank you for sharing, Meghan.

    I am not a lawyer (IANAL), but my understanding of copyright is that those journalists should be held accountable for violating the license of the copyright holder (the person who took the photo) by reprinting/broadcasting those images without their permission. Just because something is on a public website does not mean that it is public property. (This is what we tell students over and over again, right?) I’m not sure of the time frame, but I’m sure you could contact the ombudsperson of the newspaper or television station and raise a complaint.

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