You may remember a recent viral video showing an undescribed predatory ant behavior. It turned out that myrmecologists Christian Peeters and Stéphane de Greef had observed these ants in the field, but they’d not assembled enough data to publish, leaving us all in the dark about how the ants coordinated the amazing millipede-hauling chains.
I was stung by a bullet ant last week in Costa Rica. On purpose.
How did it feel?
Bearable. Given this species’ fearsome reputation, I was expecting worse. It certainly hurt, though.
It wasn’t just the initial sear from the sting’s penetration, imparting all the sharpness one would anticipate from a relatively large hymenopteran, but the way the pain sank beneath the skin.
The bullet ant has a reputation for feeling like a firearm wound. Having never been shot, I can’t make much of the comparison. I imagine an actual shooting would be far more traumatic, but all the same I understand where the name comes from. A Paraponera sting feels more profound than the average insect sting. Like tissue or bone damage, it is a deep throbbing ache that crescendos over several hours. Unlike a honey bee sting, whose sharpness gives way quickly to a dull itch, the bullet ant’s sting is the gift that keeps on giving. Less a gunshot, I suppose, than the lasting pain following a solid crowbar to the arm. Although bearable, mine still ached when I went to bed 8 hours later. All pain was gone in the morning.
We tend not to make much of where on the body we’re stung, but stings are like real estate. Location, location, location. The forearm is a relatively mild substrate, a safe place to experiment with stings. I was once zinged on the tip of the nose by a common honey bee. Holy bejeezus. I’ll take twelve bullet ants to the arm before I wish to relive that one.
(Special thanks to Andrés Rojas and Erica Parra for planning the session and wrangling the ants! For more gruesome bullet ant entertainment science, see them and others getting zinged at StingFest 2015).
The postdoctoral researchers in Nancy Moran’s lab here at UT have adopted a local longhorn beetle and, for reasons that remain mysterious, named it “Ringo”. I can only hope they weren’t punning on Beetles/Beatles.
Ringo was kind enough to pose for me in the most makeshift of photo studios. Lacking time to assemble a proper studio whitebox, I took the beetle to a small, white-painted room and fired a couple off-camera strobes at the ceiling.
We should not have to designate a week for this. Coffee, chocolate, raspberries, almonds, melons, tequila, blueberries, and countless other delectables require floral visits by certain species of animals. Usually, insects. If you like any of these things, you should already appreciate the importance of healthy, diverse ecosystems.
But apparently not many people recognize where food comes from, or even that flowers only exist because of insects. So here we are: Pollinator Week.
The best way to celebrate Pollinator Week- while sipping coffee & enjoying raspberry-melon tart- is to draw up plans to rip out your boring lawn and replace it with pollinator-friendly native flowers. You may also write your congressperson (if you have moved on to tequila at this point, I wouldn’t blame you) to demand protection of the vanishing natural habitats where pollinators live.
Of lesser impact, I have priced my entire pollination gallery at near-cost sale rates for the week. If you’d like to pick up a 5×7″ print for as little as $3.99, have a look:
On the Indian subcontinent there is a species of ant with a distinct nest entrance flanked by a raised series of concentric clay rings, as though to prevent flooding. The ant seems reasonably common- at least, it is commonly photographed (see here). Locals call it a “harvester ant”. I have not seen any photographs where the ants are visible enough to identify.
The internet has two different ideas about the identity of this mystery mini-architect. One is Pheidole sykesii, which is possible, but I fear that idea may be one of those self-reinforcing internet citation circles with no verified literature behind it. The other is that this is a species of Trichomyrmex, a suggestion on twitter from several others, including at least one professional myrmecologist.
My Google-Fu has run dry, though. Do any of you know what makes these lovely mounds?
The astute observer will notice I’ve put flies at the top. This is no accident. Flies are important pollinators, but as Morgan Jackson recently pointed out, they are unjustifiably neglected in favor of the more popular bees.
In August I hired ImageRights International, a reputable copyright enforcement agency, to assume the routine handling of commercial infringements of my professional work. There are a lot. Starting in September 2014, companies began receiving letters from ImageRights’ partner law firms seeking to resolve these infringements on my behalf.
Q. Why are you doing this to me?
Don’t take it personally. I stopped being angry about most of these cases a long time ago. The reality is that handling copyright infringements like yours with simple cease & desist letters was costing me thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours per year. The more time I spend on infringements, the fewer new images I add to my portfolio, and the more I have to charge my regular clients to compensate.
I handled these cases myself for over ten years, usually demanding nothing but image removal, and I am tired of it. The problem is growing worse each year, and I no longer have the time to bear the costs of your infringements.
ImageRights’ system is efficient. Submitting infringements to them takes much less of my time than researching and sending a DMCA takedown notice. ImageRights offered me a way to get a significant part of my life back, and I took it. The hitch is, the legal teams cost money. Although I am also paying them a service fee, my payments aren’t enough.
Q. Are you bluffing? Will I be sued if I ignore the letters ?
I am serious. You may wish to consult with an attorney to evaluate your situation.
Q. You are wrong, I did license that image, and I resent being accused of something I did not do.
Goodness! My heartfelt apologies for my mistake. If you forward the license agreement or receipt to my lawyers, we will drop the case and I will fully refund your original license payment, while you may continue to use the image(s). I have made an erroneous accusation before, and I felt terrible about it.
Q. Why are your lawyers asking so much? Images on your site license for only $100-$400.
Paying my fee alone still leaves me on the hook for legal costs incurred by your company’s actions. Lawyers cost more per hour than I do. Our government’s copyright enforcement framework treats infringements as civil matters that generally require legal counsel. It is not a good system. Fortunately, there are proposals in the works to replace it with something less expensive, but until meaningful reform happens, it is what we have. I don’t like it either. Write your congressional representative.
Also, infringements have to cost more than regular license fees. Otherwise there would be no deterrent, and no point to copyright. Imagine if the penalty for stealing groceries was just that you’d have to pay for them when caught. If you aren’t caught every time, you’re better off just stealing by default.
I am not getting rich doing this, and I would have preferred it if your company hadn’t used my photography in the first place.
Q. It’s just a photo! Surely a photo can’t be worth that much.
It is not “just a photo.” Photography is how I supported my family for years, and photographs incur significant time, travel, equipment, and research costs. I did not travel to rural Argentina, spend weeks processing images and identifying the animals, and purchase $10k worth of camera gear to give your company free marketing materials.
Q. But I have found a lot of other companies using the image, too! You can’t single me out.
Many companies license my work to display on their websites without a distracting copyright mark. You may have seen the images on one of my client’s sites.
Also, copyright enforcement is nonexistent in many developing countries. I have no way of dealing with infringements on the part of Vietnamese companies, for example, but they are still visible via Google.
Q. Why aren’t you answering my messages?
I am contractually obliged not to speak with you. Once you have settled the issue with the lawyers, then we can talk. Again, it’s not personal.
I am not Getty and my lawyers are not Getty’s lawyers. Considerably more effort and attention went into researching and vetting your case than went into Getty’s ham-handed, largely automated process.
Q. Why didn’t you just contact me directly? I would have removed the image.
There are dozens of you every month. I don’t have that kind of time.
Q. What if I just remove the image?
Since you already used the image, you owe license fees. Plus, I’ve already incurred legal costs and I would like those back.
I probably shouldn’t tell you this, since it is legal-ish advice and I’m not a lawyer, and since it is against my financial interests to tell you, but if you plan to deal with the letter by ignoring it, you may be best off not removing the image at all. If you remove it after receiving notice, then the legal team knows you’ve read the notice and have knowingly chosen to duck the fees. Should we end up in court, a willful infringement may put you on the hook for substantially more damages than you would face from a blissfully ignorant infringement.
Q. How do you decide to enforce a case?
If the infringement appears on a personal blog, forum, or web page, I usually ignore it. If I have time, which I generally don’t, I may issue a takedown notice to remove infringing copies from personal sites most likely to feed downstream infringements. If the infringement occurs on a corporate or organizational webpage, product, broadcast, or similar, even if it is just a small internal image, I generally submit it to ImageRights.
Q. I am hiring my own lawyer, so there.
All the better. Lawyers are trained to deal with these situations. You and I are not. Things will go more smoothly with lawyers.
Q. You are a horrible person, and I will tell everyone how horrible you are for this.
Please do. A reputation for aggression may deter future infringements, and that will save all of us a great deal of trouble going forward.
Our plan to produce public domain images at the University of Texas has drawn the ire of professional photographers, several of whom have emailed me privately or commented publicly expressing concern for how the project will affect the insect photo market. For example:
I’m an insect photographer as well. The market for my photographs will decline with ideas like this. Can you explain how this is going to benefit the photography market by giving out free images? Too many photographers these days are doing work for free just to try and build clients and now you have this plan to give away free high quality insect images? Well, I see that as a huge negative blow to all other insect photographers out there…
I do love your work by the way…but I never saw this coming. Help me open my mind a little. What am I not seeing? How is this going to be a benefit and not negatively impact all other insect photographers?
I wish I had time to write a proper response to these queries. As it is, UT has me briskly busy during the day and mini-Myrmecos, at 18 months, keeps me plenty occupied during off hours. But, here is a short version on why I doubt Insects Unlocked will be a net negative for commercial insect photographers.
Obviously, a basic reading of supply and demand suggests that increasing supply by adding a couple thousand free photos to the market would depress prices. But buyers aren’t looking for generic insect photos. Or rather, the buyers that matter aren’t. Those looking for generics already use .30 cent microstock images. That market long ago collapsed to the point of irrelevance for pro shooters.
Buyers that matter, buyers with money, are looking for specialty images. They want photos of Apis florea in flight with a forested backdrop, a close-up of a cutworm eating lettuce, or a third instar triatomine assassin bug photographed in dorsal view. Insects Unlocked may intrude somewhat into this market, but let’s be realistic about how much it will intrude: not much. Our planned 1,000 to 2,000 image output in the pilot year is barely going to make a dent in the face of overwhelming insect diversity. Even working our hardest, we’ll be lucky to image 0.01% of the world’s 10 million species. Hell, we’ll be lucky to manage .1% of the insect fauna of just Texas.
Buyers that matter are looking for rarity, too. I know this from interactions I’ve had over the years. Buyers commonly ask if I have unpublished photos, or photos that aren’t licensed very often. New, unseen images have special value. Public domain images do not. Nothing says “I’m nearly bankrupt” like a company splaying public domain images across their products. Even if the Insects Unlocked output is visually spectacular, most high-value buyers will still buy from copyrighted stock, as copyright ensures the coveted rarity.
Buyers in the print market- the ones with money- are similarly not looking for generic insect photographs. They’re looking for a Piotr Naskrecki or a Darlyne Murawski. Insects Unlocked does not plan on producing any of those.
This, particularly, is what frustrates me most about the notion that Insects Unlocked will weaken the market. The despair would make sense in a bland, uncreative world where the works of all insect photographers were interchangeable. But they are not. Each photographer has a unique style. I can pick, for example, a Laurie Knight photo from 100 meters out. We are not Laurie Knight, alas. We’re Insects Unlocked. The buyers who matter are discerning enough to tell us apart. If you think Insects Unlocked will weaken your market, what does that say about your photography?
Likewise, the professional photographer most likely to take a financial hit from Insects Unlocked is me. In spite of my new university position, I still earn a substantial proportion of my income from licensing images from my copyright-protected libraries, and from print sales. If buyers have a choice between a $250 copyrighted Alex Wild print from my galleries, or a public domain Alex Wild printed for $5 from Walmart, will they choose rarity over cost? If I am short-changing anyone with Insects Unlocked, it isn’t other photographers.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we rise and fall not as much on how we compete with each other, but on how our subject matter competes with other cultural concerns. If the general public’s entomological interests declines, we’re all screwed, public domain or no. If public interest doubles, we all do well. Rising tide, ships, you know the metaphor. To the extent that a small public domain image campaign buoys the public perception of insects, we all benefit.
And now, because I am exhausted and behind schedule on other projects, I am publishing this post without proofreading. Fair warning.
A while back I wrote a feature for Ars Technica on the dysfunctional online copyright landscape. The piece was personal. My photographs average around $50 each to make, mostly in time, equipment, and travel costs. These costs have traditionally been covered by commercial users who buy permissions, as copyright law requires.
Yet fewer than 10% of the online commercial users of my work have even asked permission, much less paid. Such low rates were not sustainable. What was remarkable about my situation, also, was precisely nothing. A great many professional photographers see similar exploitation. That is how it is, it is frustrating, and if we knew an easy solution, we would be doing it already.
Among the varied reactions to the Ars piece was a persistent suggestion that maybe I ought try a different approach, one that asks the community to pay the costs up front in exchange for open images. Like it or not, science and nature photographs online are most often treated as a public resource, not as a tradeable commodity, and perhaps their production should reflect that reality.
I can see the logic. Science images are informative about the world around us, they are data as well as art. Perhaps, with a shift in perspective, the photo-using community might be convinced to share the costs of a public resource, as we do with other public services. NASA and USGS, for example, already make fantastic public domain images from taxpayer support. Could crowdfunding similarly serve as a copyright-free foundation for science imagery?
I don’t see why not. Neither does my new employer, the University of Texas at Austin, which has generously thrown their support behind our new, crowdfunded public domain initiative called Insects Unlocked. Here’s the pitch:
We’ll be supporting a team of UT students as they produce thousands of public domain images, both of live animal behavior in the field and of detailed microscopic structures in preserved specimens. We hope you consider helping us as we create a stream of open science images, free for anyone to use.