Strange things happen when you put your stuff on Wikimedia Commons

You just saw a photograph of a freight train. It is not very interesting to almost anyone. But maybe a story about it would be!

A few years ago I was at Downham Market station. I don't recall why I was there. It might have been because I was broke at the time and had nothing better to do; most likely I had enough money to pay for a train ticket and doing nothing in particular in Downham was more fun than doing nothing in particular where I was. And I had an Olympus Trip 35 film camera loaded with Ilford XP2 black-and-white film in a pocket. A freight train passed through the station. I thought it was interesting and the light felt nice, and so I took a bad photo of a freight train heading through Downham Market, and later uploaded it to a site called the Wikimedia Commons.

I suspect the kind of person who reads my blog would be the kind of person to know what the Wikimedia Commons is, but I shall explain for those in the cheap seats: it is a website wherein anyone can upload their own stuff on the condition that it can be used by anyone, for absolutely any purpose, with or without modification. This means that your stuff gets used in really fun and unexpected ways. I know photos of mine that are not this freight train have showed up in books from serious academic publishers, scientific papers, and PowerPoint presentations.

The fact that photos of mine were used in PowerPoint presentations might make me worry whether my putting photos out there for anyone to use might have a net-negative impact on the world. But because of the "everyone can use this without needing to ask first" nature of the Commons, and bloggers needing photos they can use for decoration, various blogging services have invented ways for authors to find photos from the Commons to use in their posts. Which means my photos have been used in about a trillion blog posts! And probably a trillion more blog posts which I will never see.

Back to that photo of a freight train. This was one of hundreds I chucked onto the Commons over the years. I thought someone else might find it interesting, some time in the future. Or it could just sit there and do nothing but take up 1.81 megabytes of disk space! Which it did, for years. Then, someone wrote a short murder-mystery set at Downham Market station.


Screenshot of Liam Saville's short story "Murder at the Railway Arms", with my photo heading up the article


An Australian author called Liam Saville thought that photo was the right photo as the intro pic for his work. You must go and read the story. I loved it, and as a local I appreciate that he did a bunch of very small details very correctly. All of that while hanging upside-down! (This is how Australia works. I don't know how they do it.)

But (Arlo Guthrie voice) that's not what I came to talk about today. Some time later, I had cause to visit Downham Market again, and in particular, to use the bogs at Downham Market station. And while I was in there, I noticed the walls being covered in giant prints of various trains, and in particular noticed that one of the cubicles was covered in a black-and-white photo of a Class 66 locomotive passing through Downham Market...

My photo of a Class 66, covering the entire wall of one of the bogs in Downham Market station

...and it took me more than a moment to realise I was looking at my own photo covering an entire wall of a bog at the same station I photographed it 10 years before. I think that takes the "unexpected use of my photos" crown.

There's not a moral to the story here, because life is messy and stories with a moral are rarely true stories. Instead, I'll just say that free culture is beautiful, both for the people who choose to contribute their work and for all the people that use it. The folks doing a makeover of a station found the right picture to use to cover an entire wall of a bog. An Australian author found the right picture for his short story for free, without needing to ask me first.

In a different world, wherein I was protective about whatever privileges copyright law gives me, this would have been a boring snapshot of a train that nobody would have seen, rather than a boring photo of a train that probably thousands have, which now has has its own life outside of my control. And that, makes me happy. :)