Early conflicts about the meaning of photography have muddled photographs' status in courtrooms ever since
Legal issues around pictures of people are complicated. Tracing them back to their sources can help illuminate current debates on copyright and privacy. Lynn Berger, a PhD student in communications at Columbia University, presented a paper at this weekend's Society for the History of Technology conference in Cleveland that traced our contemporary concerns back to some key legal battles over the meaning of early photography.
Berger's paper, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Photography: Privacy, Copyright and the Camera in the US, 1883-1905," tracks the movement of photography into the courtroom and the beginning of two, somewhat contradictory legal models: copyright and privacy.
Early observers of photography had concluded that it was not an art so much as a way of capturing nature as it was. In the early days of photography, in the mid 1800s, no one was sure if rights to a photograph, as a part of nature, could even be owned. Accordingly, when the Burrow-Giles Lithograph Company made unauthorized copies of Napoleon Sarony's iconic photograph of a pensive Oscar Wilde, the company defended itself by saying that Wilde's likeness was made by nature, and Sarony's photograph was no more than a copy of it. In 1884 the Supreme Court decided that by posing the writer in a certain position Sarony had changed nature enough to make the photograph a piece of art, and thus that copyright protection should be extended to photographs.