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Photography: Privacy, Copyright & The Courtroom

To help shed some light into this minefield, a PhD student in communications at Columbia University, Lynn Berger, recently presented a paper at the Society for the History of Technology conference in Cleveland (USA). Entitled "What We Talk About When We Talk About Photography: Privacy, Copyright and the Camera in the US, 1883-1905," her paper traces the movement & meaning of early photography into the courtroom and the beginning of two, somewhat contradictory legal models: copyright and privacy.

Such was the case of the unauthorized copies of Napoleon Sarony's iconic photograph of a pensive Oscar Wilde. By posing the writer in a certain position Sarony had changed nature enough to make the photograph a piece of art, and therefore the Supreme Court in 1884 decided that copyright protection should be extended to photographs.

For this early period of photography, Berger argued that there were two opposing concepts of photographs that coexisted uncomfortably. For copyright purposes, the photographer "made a picture" -- they were the author of the photograph. For privacy purposes, the photographer "took a picture" -- the picture was the property of its subject, the photographer a "mere mechanic."

You can read the rest of the news article here.

Photo: National Media Museum

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