My love of bugs and an open dilemma

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?!



  1. I have found that regardless of what you say people will re-blog your material and send it everywhere. You can make it amore complex by adding a disfiguring copyright, move to smugmug, very costly but which has good protection. There is a problem. CC is the best you can get.

    In any event I too am into macro, and on my wordpress blog you can access my smugmug blog. One challenge with DSLRs and Macro is that as the sensor gets beggar the depth of field shrinks. So smaller point and shoots have at least one advantage. Upsizing software from places like Onone software might help you take your shots up in resolution.

    Hope this helps.

    1. I understand and approve of the notion that your scientific work should be available to share. (Otherwise there’s not a great deal of point in doing it) Creative work is different. One could imagine that if Newton hadn’t come up with his body of work, someone else, or somemany else would have. The truth is after all out there. Creative endeavours are different. If an artist doesn’t create a painting it isn’t still waiting in potentia to be done by someone else. Your unique vision is what you are seeking to protect, have recognized (and possibly even earn a few bucks from) and there’s nothing wrong with that.
      Or alternately you could just cast it out into the world. Many are doing just that and maybe that’s the way of the future. What do I know? I’m a dinosaur whose creative works never got a great deal of recognition and very few million dollar deals.

      1. That’s an interesting perspective! I can see how protecting a unique artistic vision applies to paintings and the like. Perhaps that also applies to my photographs, in the sense that I decide the angle, lighting (to the extent I can in a natural setting), and other artistic elements of the shot. But because I’m photographing wildlife, you could also say that those animals are out there for others to photograph if I don’t do it. That part of my endeavor is not unique. On the flip side, I would say that there is often a great deal of vision and artistry in experimental design or in constructing a theory or proof. In other words, I’m not sure we should use unique vision (or lack thereof) to argue in favor of freely sharing science but not art.

    2. Thanks for your comment, Victor! Per your recommendation, I looked into onOne software, but it doesn’t appear to be available for Linux operating systems. Do you know of any other options that support Linux? I checked out your photography, by the way. Beautiful! Of course, my favorites are your insect pics 🙂

  2. I think this is pretty simple.

    First, you absolutely should push on and make a book. The photos are of sufficient quality, and have both aesthetic appeal and some scientific value.

    Second, you have no moral imperative to make this material free, since you did it all on your own time and at your own expense. It that sense, it is completely different from salaried or grant-funded academic work, which the world owns.

    Third, all any copyright regimen or licence really gives you is standing to sue. If people want to violate your terms of distribution, they will, and you have no recourse other than to take them to court. Do you really want to do that? I know I wouldn’t; I’d consider any form of piracy just a cost of doing business rather than let my life be derailed into pursuing people through the courts. So it follows that any contortions you go through to make legal action more watertight are likely worthless to you. I’d say go with a CC licence that you’re happy with, and don’t mutilate your pictures by shoving legalese text into them.

    Finally, as Cory Doctorow rightly says, most authors’ problem is obscurity, not piracy. So the way to sell your book is to make significant chunks of it freely available — just as you’re already doing at You will not lose any sales by doing this. There are no people in the world who will think “I was going to buy Erin’s book, but since this Twitter gallery exists I’ll just look at that instead”.


    1. Thanks for the fantastic feedback, Mike! You’ve really encouraged me to go forward with this project, and to continue to share photos. You’re right, it’s far more likely to drum up interest in the book than anything else. And however I decide to license the material, the last thing I want is for legal considerations to suck the joy out of it for me, which includes sharing the process of discovery with other people!

  3. I don’t generally see a problem with copyright either. I’m generally a fan of the EFF, have a Linux box at home, and despise Apples heavy handed approaches (that destroy innovation). I think the “open” way to go is to maintain the copyright you are talking about. As for applying it, finding a clever way of applying a watermark would be useful. For personal use, who cares if there is a watermark embedded? But if any commercial user comes along it will be easier to track them and force them to request permission to use your media. I wish I had some suggestions for watermarking software, but that’s something you’d have to research.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Andrew! I use Gimp for most of my images. It should be fairly simple (though I haven’t tried it yet) to add a watermark as a layer and then change opacity for increased subtlety.

  4. Do I gather that you don’t want to make money from this (or at least not a lot), and that you want to share your work with the world (for which the world thanks you! I would *love* to see this book), but that you want to prevent commercial operations from coming along and parasitising your pictures for their own gain? In which case, it seems to me (who knows nothing about the subject) that CC sounds perfect. Maybe it’s a pain to defend your copyright but just having claimed it will doubtless deter a few, and if you wanted you *could* get redress in a court.

    I don’t like the watermark idea so well, it spoils the images. Can you just claim copyright on all the images at the start of the book, or do you have to attach a statement to each figure legend? Either way, I would think that would be better than tampering with the pictures. It means people can use the images in talks etc, and helps spread the word about the amazingness of life on this planet.

    1. Kate Jeffrey asks: “Do I gather that you don’t want to make money from this (or at least not a lot), and that you want to share your work with the world (for which the world thanks you! I would *love* to see this book), but that you want to prevent commercial operations from coming along and parasitising your pictures for their own gain?”

      What would be the point of that attitude? If Erin doesn’t plan to make money out of this book for herself, how would it hurt her for others to make money from its contents? That would be increasing the wealth of the world. Surely the only reason for an author to want others not to profit is because of a (maybe legitimate) fear that it would mean less profit for the author.

      (Disclaimer: I myself am currently working on book, and I’m not going to CC-licence it, but keep it as All Rights Reserved. That’s because I want to sell copies.)

    2. There are watermarks that don’t visibly mar the image. They embed whatever she wants, “tagging” the image, but the tag stays hidden visibly.

    3. Thanks for the encouragement, Kate! I have to admit my goals here are not entirely altruistic. Although I love sharing, I would like to make some money from this book. Otherwise, as Mike pointed out, I wouldn’t be concerned about how to protect the contents; I’d simply release it all licensed CC-BY. But I do think commercial operations present a bigger threat to any potential profit than the personal user who shares a few photos among friends, hence the idea of using a NC clause.

      Once the book is put together, it will be easy enough to make a copyright or license statement that applies to the work in its entirety. (I won’t have to attach an individual statement to each figure legend.) My question here was about how to deal with the individual photos in the meantime if I continue to share them, which I would like to do. I agree with you, the less markings the photos have the better. A very subtle watermark or digital tag, as Andrew suggested, could be one solution.

  5. Frankly I don’t understand why do you want to “protect” your content if you believe in openness. To me the whole point of openness is that people can reuse and make derivations of my work without any “friction”.

    If you want to make money with your bug photographs, there are other ways of doing that instead of claiming a monopoly over those photos. You can for example use crowdfunding (kickstarter etc.). Another way is to simply put your book available somewhere for free and ask people nicely for donations (apparently this works better than one would naively believe). Also, since this is a book you’re talking about, you could just simply publish it as usually and in addition to that distribute the digital copy for free. Since most people still prefer their books in physical format, you would still be making money through physical book sales.

    1. Thanks for your suggestions! I agree, there are many ways of making money from your creations without invoking copyright law at every turn. The options you mentioned, or combinations of them, are definitely worth considering.

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