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A New Type of Theft – Can Post Production Settings be Owned?

A New Type of Theft - Can Post Production Settings be Owned?I’m hearing about it more and more.

One maker of Lightroom presets accuses another of stealing their concoctions and selling them as their own.

A Photoshop actions artist claims that another website’s actions were actually dreamed up by them.

In this age of digital thievery where photographers are still only just forging a way ahead with inventions like the Digital Economy Act of 2010, is the world ready to also deal with the issue of who owns “Vibrance=20, Clarity=50, Temp=6750”?

Just a little education in case you don’t know what we’re talking about:

Lightroom Presets

A New Type of Theft - Can Post Production Settings be Owned?Presets are one-click pre-set Lightroom adjustments for photos. You can buy them, download free ones or make your own.

They are made up of different combinations of adjustment sliders like exposure, brightness, clarity, contrast, etc. There are also sliders which turn the greens more blue, mute out the reds and add vignettes.

This is a tricky one to get a handle on. Lightroom presets, although sometimes complex, are quite simplistic compared to things like actions. They really are nothing more than a combination of slider settings at the end of the day.

Can anyone own ‘vibrance=20’?

Photoshop Actions

Actions are Photoshop’s ‘version’ of presets. They are one-click action sets which run a series of pre-determined edits to a photo. They are far more detailed and specified than presets and, indeed, these do seem to be extremely well-thought out and crafted pieces of work. The more highly specified and heavy-laden action sets could easily be recognised by their creator like the back of their hand.

Watching an action run can sometimes make your think your computer is having a fit. The layers panel fills up with adjustment layers which quickly flatten and make way for a texture layer here and a masking layer there. What you’re left with is a photo that can make you wonder “HOW did it do that?!”


Textures are a bit of a side-step of the question “can a setting be owned?” but I think they should still be included in this conversation. Textures are layers which can be laid over your images in Photoshop and blended into the photo in a multitude of ways.

They are images in themselves and I am extremely surprised to find how many people out there actually have the nerve to buy an artist’s textures and then turn around and sell the sets verbatim. Without even trying to alter them! These can be easily tracked down, especially when a texture maker has an army of fans who let them know when they find something suspicious.

Last year, Matt Kloskowski of Lightroomkillertips.com opened himself up for criticism when he posted Mike Wiacek’s newly written program called the ‘preset extractor‘. This little program simply accepts the URL of an image on Flickr and spits out the LR settings used to achieve the look. It even gives you the file to import into your presets panel! There was much controversy over this little ditty and it was removed from the web. And then put back a few weeks later. And it’s still there!

That week, Matt K. wrote a very well thought out post on his blog called “Is it wrong to steal Lightroom presets?” Personally, I think if you have to call it ‘stealing’ then, clearly, it’s wrong. In the post, he later goes on to refer to it as ‘lifting presets’ which makes a lot more sense if you’re of the idea that LR settings can’t be owned in the first place.

In the post, Matt makes reference to camera settings and brings light to this issue very well:

“Just look at some of the medicines in the drug stores. Advil, Nyquil, Sudafed, etc… all of them have generic equivalents that you can pick up at Walmart. Same ingredients with a different name. Advil makers can’t do a thing about the WalMart-Vil equivalent of their product. They can’t copyright or own 150mg of Propylparaben in their drug (or any combination of ingredients) just like you can’t copyright or own f/2.8 at 1/250th or a Vibrance setting of 35 (or any combination of develop settings).”

Lets take 3 settings – Aperture, shutter speed and focal length. Those 3 settings are included in the metadata of a photo right? Now lets say I take a photo at Mesa Arch in Utah. You know, one of the ones with the sun rising through the arch (a photo that tens of thousands of people have likely taken while standing in the same spot). Then I post that photo on Flickr (or any website).

Now you look at my metadata and find that I shot it at f/22 with a 1/10 of a second shutter speed, at 17mm using my Nikon 17-55mm lens. You take your Nikon camera, your 17-55mm lens and set up exactly where I did and shoot the same photo at f/22 with a shutter speed at 1/10 of a second at 17mm. Did you break any laws? Nope. Artistically or ethically, have you done anything wrong? Heck no! So why when you add a Vibrance setting to the metadata or a Contrast slider setting does it become a problem? There is no governing body that states that I can copy your shutter speed and aperture setting but I can’t copy your Vibrance setting. They’re all part of the metadata and as far as legalities are concerned, I don’t think the law can/will discern between the two.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

Now, all that concerns Lightroom Presets which can be easily correlated to simple camera settings. But what about Photoshop actions? Like I mentioned before, these are far more highly customised and fine-tuned pieces of work and, personally, I think these can be easily identified by their makers and perhaps even ‘owned’ with copyrights.

What do you think?

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Elizabeth Halford
Elizabeth Halford

is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

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