I love bugs. And I love taking pictures of them. In recent months, I’ve amassed a collection of photographs and am thinking of putting together a book. But this presents a dilemma for me as an open access, open source, open pretty-much-everything advocate. How should I protect my content with violating my beliefs on openness?

Some background…

My love is actually of invertebrates in general and it’s shown for most of my scientific career. As an undergraduate, I worked with Armadillidium vulgare, a species of pill bug. They’re not really bugs at all, if what you mean by bug is some type of insect. They’re crustaceans. And I was interested in how they learn. I spent hours in a university basement laboratory watching them as they ran through a T-shaped maze. I started breeding them to have my own supply of subjects and before I knew it I had a fairly large colony, which I eventually took home and cared for after the project ended.

After graduation, I went to work in a neurobiology lab where I studied olfactory learning in the moth, Manduca sexta. I trained them to distinguish different odors (not that it always worked that well!), and tested different lighting and visual cues based on what they would encounter while feeding in a natural environment. I dissected apart their food pump muscles and recorded from them. (Yes, I felt bad having to kill them, even if it was for research. You can imagine how my later experiences killing rats went.)

In graduate school, I worked with the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. More specifically, I worked with the larvae, trying to figure out how the nervous system controls crawling. I was fascinated (still am) with the undulating waves of muscle contractions that propel them forwards or backwards. (For more on this work, see my PeerJ article.)

Mexico’s bugs

Considering my love of bugs, I’ve landed in the right place. Mexico has so many fascinating species! But when I first came to live here, the mom in me was concerned about the entomological diversity. I wanted to know which spider house guests (and we have many!) might be dangerous for the kids, and which I could let stay in peace. So, I grabbed my camera and started taking pictures. Once I had a photo, I could zoom in, study the features, or even post it to Twitter when I was really stumped for an identification. As expected, most of the spiders we have here aren’t harmful. Now, it’s mostly the scorpions I worry about…

What began out of necessity quickly became a hobby, as I was fascinated with all the other bugs I saw around. And now I have a large collection of photographs of diverse species. I’ve been posting some of these photos on Twitter the last few months, and finally one follower tweeted:

My first response was this:

But I continued to receive encouragement, most notably from Andrew Warren (who, by the way, has been fantastic in helping me identify all the butterflies I photograph!).

And it got me thinking, why not? My photographs may not be high-resolution macro, but they have other points in their favor. First, they are all of wild animals in their natural setting. Second, they are of diverse species photographed in one geographic area, giving a good census of the wildlife there. And apparently some of the insects are ones not commonly photographed in nature. If nothing else, putting a book together is something I’d like to do for myself. But I think it might also have the potential to be of public interest.

Photographs and copyright

Here’s where the problem lies. I’m an open access, open source, open science advocate. I’m not a big fan of copyright or proprietary anything. I like sharing. Up until now, I’ve simply cropped my photos and posted them online, without a name stamp or any sort of copyright notice. I wasn’t worried about people sharing or reusing them, until I thought about the implications of that for publishing a book.

According to copyright law, I don’t have to put a notice on my photos; I automatically own the copyright. And in any case, it seemed pointless to put a notice, since someone wanting to use the photos could just crop it out. But then I read this article on the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which makes it illegal to remove copyright information from a photo. If you can show that someone removed the information for the purposes of infringing on your copyright, you can recover damages more easily than was possible prior to this law. So, putting that notice can protect you.

It still feels selfish to me. However, I think there are some important distinctions here between making my scientific work completely open and protecting my photographs. When I produce a scientific work, at least some part of that effort was funded with taxpayer money.  I don’t believe I have the right to then control access to that work. It belongs to the public and should be freely accessible without limits on distribution and reuse. But my photography is done on my own time, without any public funding. In fact, any money put into the effort is my own, and in that sense I surely have the right to protect that investment.

Moving forward

I don’t want to prevent casual sharing and reuse, but rather derivatives and commercial uses. In this sense, it seems the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License is perfect for my purposes. The question is how to go about it. Should I place the copyright notice on my photos and specify elsewhere (i.e. here on the blog) that my photos are CC-BY-NC-ND, or directly place that license info on the photos?

I’d love feedback on this. What do you think is the best way to protect my content without violating my beliefs on openness? And while we’re at it, would you like to talk me out of the potentially crazy idea of writing a book?!