Bear photo at CU-Boulder: Copyright complaint as shot becomes meme, GIF fave

Categories: Media, News

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Big photo below.
Update: Last week, CU-Boulder student Andy Duann's photo of a tranquilized bear falling out of a tree went viral, as we explain in our original coverage below. But even as the shot became a meme and GIF favorite (we've included examples), reports broke that Duann was exploring legal action against CU over its handling of the image. Today, he says he isn't planning to sue, but he does want his copyright back.

"I don't want any money," says Duann, an engineering student who notes that he's not pursuing photography as a career. "I just want my school to at least respect me and respect all the CU Independent students who work for them for free, as volunteers. None of us get anything, not even a penny. So how come the copyright goes to them? And how come they get to distribute the photos? That doesn't make any sense at all."

Here's the original shot, which features a bear that had climbed into a tree near the Williams Village dormitories on the CU-Boulder campus:

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Andy Duann/CU Independent
The photo was an immediate smash, with news agencies across Colorado, the country and the world picking it up within hours. Its popularity caused the CU Independent website to crash not once but twice en route to setting a new pageview record. Adviser Gil Asakawa (disclosure: a former Westword staffer and longtime acquaintance of yours truly) had earlier provided us with a preliminary figure just north of 10,000 pageviews -- much more than the site's 4/20 coverage. The updated total exceeds 16,000.

Soon, web surfers began using the image as raw material for Internet humor. Here's an example from the University of Colorado memes page:

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And here's an out-of-this-world animation of the ursine celebrity:

But amid the excitement over this PR coup for the Independent, Duann spoke out to the Poynter Institute's MediaWire site, expressing frustration that Asakawa had allowed publications across the globe to run the photo without charge as long as they credited Duann and the Independent. Not that they always did so: Duann says he's seen versions of the photo from as far away as his homeland of Taiwan with generic labels like "online sources" or references to the Associated Press, which has now pulled the photo in the wake of the reported litigation prospect.

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Andy Duann.
Duann says that while he considers himself a member of the CU Independent staff, he has never signed any kind of contract or agreement with the organization and was not assigned to take the photo of the bear. Rather, he did so on his own, then sent a copy of the pic to the Independent for posting, but with no intention of ceding his copyright to the site.

Shortly thereafter, Duann was contacted by a representative of the Colorado Daily, who offered to pay him $250 for use of the image. In response, Duann says he called the Independent to ask what to do. After some back and forth, he was left with the impression that he would be paid for the photo by the Denver Post, which is affiliated with the Daily and its sister paper in Boulder, the Daily Camera (creator of a GIF we're highlighting). But no such payment has reached him, and while Asakawa stresses that he and the Independent's editors decided he should get at least $250 several hours before the controversy erupted, Duann says the fee hardly matters now. "The photo is worth a lot more than $250," he says. Instead, what he wants is acknowledgment that the copyright to the image belongs to him.

Asakawa has a different point of view.

"We obviously would not have started sending the photo all over the place if we didn't think we had the right to do so -- unless we felt comfortable that we owned the content," he says. "I do understand Andy's frustration, and we're hopefully going to work everything out. But we were operating from a position of establishing the copyright and acting on those copyrights."

Furthermore, he continues, "in all cases, it was important for us to promote Andy as the photographer. We never said the credit should be 'CU Independent.' It was 'Andy Duann/CU Independent.' He was the photographer and we were operating as the copyright holders. Those were the assumptions we were working on."

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Gil Asakawa.
Asakawa says that although he hasn't spoken to Duann since the student publicly expressed his displeasure, he's looking forward to doing so with an eye toward resolving the issue. When this message is relayed, however, Duann gets frustrated. He says he phoned Asakawa on numerous occasions over the weekend, "and I know he's got my number" -- but he hasn't received a reply as of this writing.

In the meantime, Duann is scheduled to meet with Christopher Braider, overseer of CU-Boulder's in-transition journalism department, at 1:30 p.m. this afternoon. During this conversation, he plans to not only ask that he be given the copyright of the bear photo, but also that new rules be put in place to prevent what happened this time around.

"They should have usage rights, but I think we should get to keep the copyright," he says. "They should change this policy to benefit students in the future."

Look below to see more bear-photo memes and GIFs, followed by our original coverage.

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