Discussing Ridolfo and Rife, “Rhetorical Velocity and Copyright”

This is where we’ll talk about Jim Ridolfo and Martine Courant Rife “Rhetorical Velocity and Copyright: A Case Study on Strategies of Rhetorical Delivery,” which is in the collection Copy(write): Intellectual Property in the Writing Classroom, available via the WAC Clearinghouse. It’s a little more “teaching of writing” focused and it goes down some other topics/emphases I don’t really want to dwell on too much. Instead, I’m more interested in the role of MSU as an institution appropriating that image of Maggie.

 

I think it’s a fascinating example, though I have to say I do get a little “in the weeds” a bit in this reading because of some of the law stuff. That might have to do with my own personal state right now from the weather and being sleep deprived though. 😉

On the one hand, I understand Maggie’s claim and her displeasure with MSU appropriating her image as a way of marketing itself, especially since these photos were taken at a protest against the university. This is also at the heart of the “rhetorical velocity” argument. On the other hand, I’m not quite sure I am getting/understanding the notion of “rhetorical velocity” because it seems to me that whenever you release a text/rhetorical act on the world, there’s always a chance that it can be remixed and reused in unintended and inappropriate ways.

And besides, it’s not like MSU took a picture taken by Maggie or it’s not like they were using a picture taken in Maggie’s yard. I might be cynical or simplistic here, but it seems that MSU has a pretty clear legal case here. Whether or not they should have done this is of course more debatable.

17 thoughts on “Discussing Ridolfo and Rife, “Rhetorical Velocity and Copyright”

  1. Danielle

    The idea of rhetorical velocity is interesting, but it seems more relevant than ever now that technology has made it so easy for media to be re-used in other contexts. The notion that rhetors should try to anticipate how their work may be used in the future makes sense and is something that I should probably consider more myself. But, as Ridolfo and Rife question, “to what extent should groups theorize visually intensive campaigns in terms of the potential impact on future ethos for individual participants? To what extent should participants in visually intensive protests be conscious of how the images they co-produce may be used in the future?” (230)

    Maggie’s case is interesting because she was on public property in the middle of a public protest. It seems to me that, especially once she saw the photographers there, that she should have assumed the university could use her image. As explained in the “Legal, Ethical, and Conceptual Issues” section, “When someone appears in a public space, as Maggie did, the general legal standard asks whether or not a reasonable person would have a right to privacy in such a space (Rife, 2007)—this is the rationale that photojournalists rely on to report the news. When Maggie engaged in a protest in a public space—a physical commons, open to public view at a public institution—the argument is very strong that she had little right to privacy.” (231)

    So I agree with Dr. Krause that MSU probably has a legal case for using her image. After all, it’s not like Maggie took the photo. But I still think it makes them look bad…and if Maggie made enough of a fuss about it, I’m sure they’d get a lot of bad publicity over the whole thing (seems like maybe they already have?)

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    1. Molly McCord

      I see both sides here, too. Like Danielle and Dr. Krause noted, Maggie was in a public space and the goal of the protest was to achieve media attention, so it seems almost like a “win” for Maggie and her fellow activists. But when MSU reproduced the photograph for promotional purposes, “The problem here,” as Rudolfo and Rife put it, “is that their discourse was appropriated in unanticipated ways” (232). But I feel like this kind of thing must happen a lot, right? In our tech-centered world, I honestly kind of assume not much is really private anymore (as cynical as that may sound), as long as it can be captured (via text or image) and put online. This is where the notion of rhetorical velocity is also rather lost on me. It just seems like a given that a photograph could be reproduced and remixed in lots of ways.

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      1. Tracey Sonntag

        Absolutely. Go to any stock photo depository online and use a search term. Now look at some of the images you find, the complete list of search terms applied to each. What I found when I did this, was that everything could have been appropriate in more than one context.

        Reply
    2. Jennifer

      Several thoughts come to mind on this. When I look at a newspaper photo of an event that is of a large group of people, usually the caption will just read something like, “Protesters Chant at March” or whatever, no names are gathered and no releases are signed for the use of those individuals’ images. So, in that context I can agree that MSU has the stronger argument for using the photo of Maggie without permission, but when they began to remix and re-use it without her permission – and pretty extensively it seems – then I take issue.

      One thing I wonder, well, TWO things – first, is MSU really too cheap to get more photos? It seems like they really used the heck out of that one with her in it, and second, did pasting her face all over MSU collateral have a political impetus behind it? Under the new President Simon, MSU joined the WRC, maybe MSU was trying to get some political mileage out of associating itself with her image.

      Reply
      1. Lisa Pignotti

        I’ve noticed that university marketing will reuse some photos ad nauseam if they capture an image they want to project to future students. “People having fun in a snow fight….MSU is such a fun school” is a great recruiting tool. I don’t think they would have remixed it for political reasons, but it is possible. I’m sure that happens all the time in various situations.

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        1. Tracey Sonntag

          Agreed; EMU’s marketing department has recently expanded its trove of stock images (and made them more “secure” — i.e., difficult to get to), but even just last year we had very few images of students in actual classrooms with professors. The few we were able to get our hands on saw quite a lot of mileage in the materials the Gen Ed office produced leading up to the Winter registration and related presentations.

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          1. skrause Post author

            Two thoughts:

            * I think these images get reused a lot by different places (EMU, MSU, other institutions) because getting high quality, professional, and “interesting” images like this is a lot harder than you might think. So I can understand why a good picture shows up again and again, though there is the danger of it getting over-used, of course.

            * At least EMU’s marketing folks are now featuring stock images that actually come from EMU! A few years ago, the college and the department had a web site that was all “stock images” of generic “college students” who all looked like models. Jeesh.

  2. Jonathan Furlette

    I agree with the points above and I think it is an interesting debate to have; what is “usable” vs. “unusable,” “public” vs. “private,” especially living in the world today. The danger that I see in letting everything that happens in the world “in plain sight” to be considered public is that images can easily be taken out of context and/or manipulated or altered. People are now held accountable for actions/activities in their daily lives much like they were held accountable for things that they put into print a generation ago. The equipment that is used to take pictures and record audio is cheaper and more powerful than ever before. Almost everyone has a smartphone on them at all times, in almost all areas. Photos and videos are now used as leverage, especially in Hollywood. Authors, athletes, celebrities, politicians, and really anyone in the public eye has to watch out for who is watching them; always staying cautious of what they say and do. Even the common person is subjected to this type of monitoring. I think that this gives a lot of power to people who don’t really deserve it, or simply have nothing better to do. I guess you are right Molly, and no it does not sound cynical, there really is no such thing as a private life anymore. Sorry, I went on a little bit of a rant there, but these are the things that I thought of when reading this piece.

    Reply
    1. Adam Czarnecki

      Do you think this might give rise to some kind of “masking” technology? That is, something like: “Put this device in your pocket and in any photograph you’ll show up as a blur?” No idea how it would work, but, I can see it being popular, especially if it’s cheap.

      Reply
      1. Tracey Sonntag

        Whoa. You may have just hit on your million dollar idea, Adam!

        Seriously, though, the one concept I had the most issue with in this piece was the idea of orphan works. Maggie’s photo wasn’t “orphaned,” I think that human nature will probably use this act (if it passed–did it?) to get sloppy with looking for the creator. It’s easy to say, yeah, I looked and didn’t find an owner so now I’m using it. This whole issue reminds me of bloggers who watermark all the images they post on their blogs so they can’t be appropriated for out-of-context use.

        We’ve given up so many of our rights to privacy, simply out of being scared into believing it’s in our own good. Who was it that said, (paraphrase) “he who sacrifices freedom for safety deserves neither?”

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  3. Lisa Pignotti

    Using images taken of events on campus, is common practice by universities to use in their publications. I’m pretty sure Michigan Tech had a policy about this (I’d tried finding it, but couldn’t). I once found my face on their website, it accurate to the event I was participating in, but I really didn’t want to be on their home page (despite my desire for fame 😉 ).

    In Maggie’s case, it was used inaccurately and hurt her ethos, so I can see why she was upset. It also reminds me of that University of Wisconsin-Madison incident where they inserted an African American student, who wasn’t at the event, into a photo of a sporting event for a university publication (to give the appearance of diversity in the student population). Remixing images in those cases seems quite unethical to me.

    Rhetorical velocity seems like a difficult concept to practice, just because images are so easily shared and there are myriad ways in which it can be remixed. Think about all the memes out there. Those images had to originate from somewhere…and a meme was probably not the original intention.

    Reply
    1. Adam Czarnecki

      Working at a public university I’m reminded constantly that anything that happens on campus “belongs” to the University. Still, purposefully adding a caption that totally misrepresents what is happening in the photo seems like a jerk move.

      To your last point, I totally agree. Part of what makes memes so funny is that they don’t start purposefully as memes. When “viral” became a buzzword a few years ago and companies would set out with “viral marketing” they’d get laughed at because it so totally missed the point. Things have to go viral organically, which makes it extremely difficult to practice.

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      1. Molly McCord

        It’s interesting to think about how, even though an event like the protest that Maggie was involved in took place in a “public” space, the university would claim her photo as its “property.” It seems like it’s really nobody’s “property” if it was taken in a public area. I guess I feel like the term “property” implies some kind of ownership (belonging to a particular entity), but if something or someplace is public property, does it really belong to anyone? Are you your own property? And if you take your own property to a public place, where do you draw the line between public and private property? Okay–sorry about that little aside…but I got a little caught up in the “who owns what” idea…

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  4. Molly McCord

    I was reminded of the copyright comic we read earlier in the week when I came upon Ridolfo and Rife’s statement that “we need to stop thinking about copyright law in terms of what isn’t possible, but also in terms of what is possible” (241). Like I noted in one of my comments about the comic, I have really only considered the restrictive aspects of copyright law, and never really the possibilities it opens up for sharing and redistribution via remixed content. Ridolfo and Rife go on to note that “rhetors can strategically compose for the recomposition of their own intellectual property” (241), which is all part of their rhetorical velocity concept. I guess I wonder, if someone were aware that his/her video or photo or song could be remixed by another party, would this affect the original composition to any extent? I suppose that would depend on the author’s intent, but it’s interesting to think about creating a multimedia project with the purpose of making it available for remixing, especially since predicting how people might use it seems quite difficult.

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  5. Jennifer

    One question I have is, who in the world has TIME to practice rhetorical velocity each time they create something?

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    1. Tracey Sonntag

      That’s a good question! It’s almost like needing specific hats that read, “I’m doing THIS today,” you know? But then, any half-decent photoshop artist could still remix that image to remove or edit the print. The same thing could easily happen to students using more specific protest signs and whatnot. The internet is just teeming with photos of people in places they’ve never been, doing things they’ve never done, and saying things they’ve never said.

      The Hub and I had a rousing debate the other morning about poverty and capitalism and socialism and asshole-ish-ness (for lack of a better term), and the whole thing was kicked off by my posting on Facebook, “Every one of our problems is the direct result of our not being able to make being a **** illegal.” Or something like that. All laws about copyright and fair use and the like really do, in my opinion, is make the people who would violate those laws work harder to do so.

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  6. Seth Taylor

    I can understand the idea of reusing photos for various material, and as Dr Krause points out, it’s probably not easy to capture that great photo every-time you pull out the camera. It just seems that going to the trouble of photo-shopping a photo, cutting it out of one background and carefully fitting it onto another, is almost more work than getting out there and taking new photos. Having said that, I do think the university had a case, and I really find it difficult to believe that in all those hundreds of pages of admissions materials there was nothing regarding students’ images being used in university literature.

    Reply

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