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Paper's Apology for Erasing Clinton from History Hinges on Flickr Licensing

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, May 9 2011

White House photo
Image credit: Failed Messiah, via Vos Iz Neias

A Brooklyn Hasidic newspaper is apologizing for photoshopping U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton out of that now-iconic Situation Room photo of the day Osama bin Laden was killed. But, no, they're not sorry for erasing a human being from a historic moment. Instead, they're sorry for violating the White House's intentions when it comes to how their photos should be used. (via Ben Smith) A statement from the paper, Der Tzeitung:

The White House released a picture showing the President following “live” the events in the apprehension of Osama Bin Laden, last week Sunday. Also present in the Situation Room were various high-ranking government and military officials. Our photo editor realized the significance of this historic moment, and published the picture, but in his haste he did not read the “fine print” that accompanied the picture, forbidding any changes. We should not have published the altered picture, and we have conveyed our regrets and apologies to the White House and to the State Department.

Of course, the big issue here is that a news organization is changing a news account in a way that, arguably, negates the contribution of a woman. And for that, there's not apology: "Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive."

But the incident puts into focus that the White House's policy on how their Flickr photos can be used is a little muddled. The Obama White House switched from a Creative Commons license to a U.S. Government Work characterization on Flickr back in May 2009, a seeming embrace of the idea that work created by the federal government falls into the public domain. But Der Tzeitung is taking cover behind the fact that the White House is still claiming some restrictions on use of the photos. A contact points out that the Flickr caption on White House photos reads like this: "The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House." They've got one foot in the public domain and the other in the land where they get to say how their work gets used.

Again, scrubbing a person from the documentary record is what matters here. But it's still a fascinating little question about the nature of digital content when it comes to government. Lawyers, what say you?