Digital Pawprint

What rights do people have over their pet’s image?

Our office conversations are usually pretty fascinating (if I do say so myself) but this week we’ve been really been outdoing ourselves in the animal welfare corridor of the vet school.

What rights do people have over their pet’s image?

Our conversation was, as so many of the best conversations are, the result of some interesting coincidences. Our new e-Learning developer at the vet school was the genesis of Edinburgh University’s ‘Digital Footprint‘ campaign, designed to help staff and students manage their awareness of their online presence. We’ve been thinking about this a lot ourselves as we build more and more e-resources (with our YouTube channels too!).

When we take footage of an animal for educational purposes, we get the owner’s consent. But a lot of the animals we record are strays, who hopefully will go on to become somebody’s pet after they get adopted. We also sometimes ‘misrepresent’, in the loosest sense of the word, what might be happening in a piece of footage.

For example, I have a great piece of footage of Athena scratching my hand, seemingly without warning. I use it to accompany lectures/resources of cat aggression. What this piece of footage doesn’t show is that we had been playing boisterously for a few minutes prior to the scratch and I knew full well what was going to happen. I also don’t show much of her reaction afterwards, where she immediately stops her playing and starts a whole host of affiliative behaviours that is a cat’s version of apologising when it knows it’s stepped over the line. The behaviour isn’t really aggression at all, just one component of Athena’s full behavioural repertoire, the same way that if I swear at my friends it isn’t really ‘aggression’ so much as part of our friendship. But I fully believe that as an educator, the clip I show makes my overall message stronger and a facsimile of the behaviour in question is far better than a visual-less description.

I can do this because I fully understand the implications of what I’m saying and what it means to pair that with an image of Athena. Can an owner do the same? For example, if we recorded a dog in the vet clinic and then were later to use that image to imply the dog was in pain (when in fact we know its pain was well managed and these behaviours actually have another cause), has the owner been able to give full, informed consent for this? The answer is ‘no’, and it makes our job really difficult as we try to find images that we have full control over. Which is why you see our animals more than any others in our MOOCs and videos.

It becomes even more complicated when we use images of animals in shelters. They will go on to become somebody’s pet, we hope. Can we use those images when their new owner has never consented? Worse, could we possibly damage a new pet-owner relationship by showing the animal out of context? If somebody watches one of our videos and sees their new dog being the poster child for ‘aggressive dogs’, will they immediately return their new dog? From a risk management point of view, while the risk severity of this is high, the likelihood of the risk is small. It still preys on our minds though. Our best practice is to seek informed consent, and we’re looking at improving this process as we talk with our MOOC team for super secret future projects that just happen to need lots of footage of cats and dogs . . .

But this argument is not just academic. You may have seen the article in the Guardian where the winners of a Thomas Cook selfie competition were contacted by the owners of the horse who featured in their selfie. The horse is performing a Flehmen’s Response (not ‘sticking its tongue out’ as the article claims), but the owners say they trained the horse to do this. While the owners may not be able to control their horse’s image while it is in a public place, do they have the intellectual property rights to the act of training their horse at all?

To go for another example, if I was to relinquish Athena (perhaps because she had jumped on my bladder one last time on a lazy Sunday morning), and one of her future owners then capitalised on her ability to carry out a conversation, could I claim the intellectual property rights as I was the one who had trained her to do that?

Of course there’s another argument, and that is that the animals themselves own their images. Certainly Wikipedia has been contending that the IP of this particular image belongs to no one, as the photographer is the macaque itself! Animal Rights groups, of course, disagree. (Check out my post ‘Value‘ if you want more chat about the ethics of animal use).

Finally, if I am aware of all of this, and the contention of ownership over image, and I post it on my blog anyway . . .

Monkey takes selfie

By Self-portrait by the depicted Macaca nigra female. See article. [Public domain],via Wikimedia Commons


. . . have I just lost all my ethical street cred?

Knowledge Is Free . . .

. . . But Teaching is Priceless

Have you heard of a MOOC? It’s the latest buzzword in the further education sector and stands for Massive Open Online Course.

As part of my work I’m helping out with a few bits and pieces on one the University of Edinburgh’s MOOCs, Animal Behaviour and Welfare. (Well, you didn’t think I’d be helping on the astrophysics one, did you?)

I’m aware that I’m failing at getting a fortnightly blog out there and considering I spent the last two days sorting students, lecturing, writing KT presentations and listening to discussions about MOOCs, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to talk about some of the ways we can exchange knowledge with a wide audience.

The University of Edinburgh have chosen Coursera as their platform for delivering MOOCs. Each MOOC is 4-7 weeks long, is aimed at a general audience, but delivered remotely by university staff. You can take a MOOC because you’re interested in the subject, because you want to know if a subject is something you might like to study in the future, because you want to demonstrate interest in Continued Professional Development to your employer, and in some cases even to get a few university credits.

The numbers of users on these courses is staggering, with thousands of people actually finishing the course. But, like many new ideas, there is some resistance to them within the academic community.

One of the issues is: who are we really aiming these at? The user base is so huge and so diverse that trying to pitch a course can be difficult. There’s some hope that we can use these as taster sessions for our Masters courses, but if they’re interesting for someone who has the pre-requisite knowledge for a Masters course, will they be accessible enough for the layperson?

The Equine Nutrition MOOC which ran last year did end up recruiting some future Masters students, but it was also hugely successful with the horse owning populace. It is possible to strike that balance, at least for an audience with enough interest and motivation to complete the course. It’s something to be aware of – the old saying is more true than ever: Know your audience.

Another issue is the level of work involved. While they’re intended to be short courses, videos, quizzes, resources amalgamations, I’ve heard the tutors say its hard to walk away from people who want extra support. As someone who schedules ten minutes ‘I’m here to be talked to’ time at the end of every lecture, I get that. Students like to talk. They like support. And I think they deserve support. Anyone who wants to learn deserves a little attention, but when so many people want to learn, how do you split your attention? I’d be interested in knowing how internet literate these users tend to be. After establishing a user base, would it become possible to initiate users who had completed the course as forum mods? As we say on the IRC channels, half ops to our ops?

I think this might be part of the problem. Academia may have been where the internet was invented, but not all of us are wonderfully computer literate ourselves. In my experience, internet communities can be great places, but they work best when they have a strong, recognised leader (Shout out to any of my Bungie.Org friends who followed the advertising links! We all know who our fearless leader is). I could imagine MOOCs becoming great places for people to congregate, to find out information from good, recognisable sources, and to help each other learn.

But I can also see MOOCs falling victim to academia’s other big problem: where’s the money? The courses cost money to make, and the revenue path is not clear. I’ve been thinking about this over the last few days and I’ve come down on the idea that we have to put MOOCs under the umbrella of ‘knowledge transfer’. It’s a way of communicating structured information to a large audience, cheaply. My personal opinion (and do remember that all opinions expressed on this blog are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my employers and colleagues) is that you can’t look at a MOOC as a money making exercise. But does that mean that the students can’t expect to be treated like customers?

What I can say is that the next couple of years are going to be fascinating for further education.