Ethics and Morality – Lost in Translation

Quite on accident I stumbled upon photos from my blog which had been stolen. I was looking at the images in a Facebook album owned by a Salvadoran pride community only to see a photo that looked familiar – “Wait a minute,” I thought, “that’s my photo!”

I clicked to enlarge it and not only had it been used without permission, but my name and my blog were not mentioned at all. Looking through the album I found almost a dozen of my photos. Soon I would find my stolen photos in the Facebook photo albums of two other similar communities owned by people in El Salvador.

I accused one of the people of theft and left comments on every single one of my photos demanding that the photos be removed. This person removed the photos quickly and apologized saying the theft had been unintentional. (He claims that the photos were submitted to him and he didn’t know where they had come from. I accepted his apology and moved on.)

In the second case it was a very large community and the guy who owned it had the nerve to watermark my photos with his name and even made comments on the photos as if he had taken them. Angry, I decided to take care of things through the Facebook complaint form for copyright violations. It was a little tedious, but Facebook acted within hours and removed the photos without me having to engage the owner of the page in conversation.

In the third case, I determined that the owner of the Facebook community was a female and decided, out of some sort of sympathy and sisterhood, to give her a chance to remove the photos herself instead of reporting her to Facebook. I told her that the photos were mine and that I was giving her one hour to remove them. If she failed to remove the photos, I would be forced to report the violation to Facebook.

She did not respond well to my ultimatum and began to insult me. I explained to her that I was being kind in giving her this chance and that others in my position could potentially take her to court. Her response?

“tu estas loca hija aqui no vengas con pendejadas saves q me vale berda lo q tu quieras hacer”

Wow. I was a little shocked but I composed myself long enough to reply:

“Qué es ‘berda’? … La palabra es VERGA. Si vas a ser maleducada, por lo menos, aprenda a deletrear, cipota.”

In the end, I reported the copyright violation to Facebook and Facebook removed the photos from her album, but I was left wondering about a lot of things. I related this whole story to Carlos and he seemed unimpressed. The look on his face said to me, “What did you expect?”

“People in El Salvador don’t respect copyrights – you should know that,” he said.

And he was right, I should know that. In El Salvador, pirated DVDs and CDs are sold out in the open. Stores in the mall carry knock-off T-shirts printed with every cartoon character and American rock band imaginable. My suegra, who’s a seamstress, buys bags of clothing labels at the market – The clothing labels are for sewing onto the clothing she makes and sells. She sews in tags that say Polo Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Liz Claiborne.

And it isn’t just individuals who do this – Even businesses in El Salvador get in on the action. I’ve mentioned before, that one day we were traveling back from Chalatenango to the city and we were starving. We saw a sign for Wendy’s – exactly like the Wendy’s sign you all know and love with the same red background, same white lettering, same instantly recognizable font. We go inside the Wendy’s only to find out it’s a little comedor selling bistec y arroz, quesadilla, and all kinds of Salvadoran food. No burgers and fries were to be found – this was not a real Wendy’s.

I think that many (not all) people in El Salvador are so used to literally being surrounded by copyright violations on a daily basis that the concept of intellectual property becomes impossible to understand. In the minds of the people who stole my images, they feel they’ve done nothing wrong. When confronted by accusations of “theft”, in their minds I was being irrational, selfish, crazy. After all, they didn’t literally steal a physical object from me – I still have my photo, they just have it too. What’s the big deal?

As I dealt with the copyright violations, Carlos told me more than once that I was wasting my time. “That’s a losing battle,” he said, “they’ll do it again, and if not them, some other Salvadoran will.” Although I wasn’t able to be at peace with that for a few days, I do agree with him.

I want to be clear here – I don’t believe this difference in ethics is due to American culture, American belief systems or Americans themselves being any way superior to Salvadoran culture, Salvadoran belief systems or Salvadorans themselves. I don’t believe that Salvadorans are less moral, less civilized or less anything. What I do believe is that this difference in ethics is an example of ethical relativism in action – In other words, my “right and wrong” are not necessarily the same as your average Salvadoran’s “right and wrong.”

It’s a controversial and complex philosophy, but it makes sense to me. What do you think? Are morals & ethics non-negotiable or are they dependent on one’s culture? What differences have you observed in ethics across cultures?

Related Reading:

Ethical Issues Across Cultures (PDF)
Ethical Relativism
Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response
Tim’s El Salvador Blog – (the discussion in comments on this post about piracy is really interesting.)

22 thoughts on “Ethics and Morality – Lost in Translation

  1. We have a whole package called “Cultural Detective Global Business Ethics” that addresses just the issue. I also live it everyday here in Mexico, and did for years living in Asia. There are few universals in the world; most things are relative. Much easier than ethical is to determine if something is illegal or immoral. I do LOVE what you are doing here! Hopefully this won’t slow you down!

    • “There are few universals in the world; most things are relative.” – This is very true, unfortunately I think that many Americans assume that things are universal until we’re confronted by something that offends our puritanical sensibilities. LOL (I wouldn’t typically lump myself into that group, but this situation shows that I’m guilty of it on occasion as well!)

      Just checked out your site and I really love your content and what you guys do.

  2. I thought that once you posted something on facebook it became public property. Of course it would be ethical to cite the source, but is it “theft”? Please explain. I do not live under the American legal system so I am surprised. Thanks! XR

    • Hi, well, first I’m not sure what the rules are regarding if I were to post a photo on Facebook — but I personally don’t have a problem with people using the “share” button on Facebook to share things I post over there. The “share” button shows where it came from, thus the original poster gets “credit” as the source – that’s great. I have no problem with this kind of sharing on Facebook or Pinterest and it would be silly to complain about this.

      What happened to me didn’t have anything to do with photos I voluntarily shared on Facebook though. People downloaded photos directly from my blog, and then uploaded them to Facebook as if they owned them.

      At the very least, if someone liked a photo and did this, they should provide the source. They could say something like “Look at this great photo of El Salvador! You can see more over on this blog called”

      Instead I had people not saying where the photo was from, putting their own name onto the photo, and acting as if they took the photo. And it wasn’t just one or two photos – in each case it was multiple photos. Basically, these people were building content off my hard work and not sharing in a way that was beneficial for us both. (And it wasn’t just an individual – these people were running communities. In one case the community is made up of thousands of people, so I expect more from them than just a single person sharing a photo with a few friends. They, [from my American perspective anyway!] should conduct themselves more professionally.)

      Not sure if I clarified anything for you or just made it more complicated! Did you understand the differences I described here?

  3. I’m so glad I quit facebook. :(

    I think because you’re so honest and you always credit your own sources, that you expect that behaviour in others, which is normal. The world is full of people who don’t care though, and that’s probably why you got so upset, because YOU would never do that.

    Will you be watermarking your photos now in an uncroppable way?

    • You quit Facebook! Ah, you’re a wiser person than I, LOL. Sometimes I want to quit but I have work-related things I have to do in there.

      You’re right that I’m very careful about crediting my sources – it’s important to me that people get credit where credit is due. Even if I get an idea for a post based on something I read, I will give a “shout out” or “hat tip” to the person who inspired me.

      As for watermarking – I usually watermark photos but there were a few I didn’t because I had huge batches and it felt too tedious. I went back and watermarked most of those and going forward I’ll probably be a lot less likely to skip that step. I don’t think I’ll put the watermark in the middle of the photo or anything like that though – it would protect the photo but it kind of ruins it, and I don’t think I’m willing to go that far.

  4. Intellectual property is a difficult concept philosophically. The problem is that there’s a big gray area.

    Say an author writes a brilliant novel. Say I go to a party and tell my friends the entire plot. They’re gonna love it, they’ll be amazed by my story, buy me beers, etc.

    Technically speaking I just violated the writer’s intellectual property. I used his storyline (that he spent time and effort on writing), and I used it to gain from it (popularity, free beers, etc). I guess that’s unethical. However, if you were to restrict it, doesn’t that mean you restrict people’s freedom to share thoughts?

    Say a journalist goes through a lot of effort to get a big scoop for a newspaper. Should websites (for example blogs) be allowed to write about it? If they do, they are using his work to attract readers (who are probably not going to buy the newspaper, because they already got the story from the internet). However if you restrict it, it means the news is censored in a way.

    The best example comes from the medical world. Say a corporation finds a molecule that cures cancer. They can then apply for a patent on it, which means that only they are allowed to produce it. Nobody else in the world can put chemicals together in order to produce that medicine. This means that laws on intellectual property can actually restrict peoples access to live saving medicines.

    To state it bluntly, protecting intellectual property borders on (or even overlaps with) censorship. So philosophically, I’m on the side of the Salvadoreños here, although I can certainly see why you find it annoying when they use your stuff without giving credit.

    • That being said, if I were an artist trying to get famous and known by the bigger public, and I saw other people enjoying my work without me getting any credit (or even pretending it’s theirs), that would endlessly annoy me. So i can really understand artists that are dealing with this.

      Every century comes with it’s ethical challenges. In the 19th century (after the industrialization of Europe) there was a lot of exploitation of workers, which resulted in socialist movements being formed. Now in the 21st century, there is more or less economic balance (in western countries). It will be interesting to see how this one plays out over the years.

      • You’re right, it is a HUGE grey area – and honestly, I can very much see both sides of the coin – I’m like that on a lot of issues. It’s very rare for me to have a very rigid stance and not be able to see the other side’s point of view, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it.

        Honestly my biggest problem here was that I was not being given credit. Many people have “pinned” my photos on Pinterest and I have absolutely no problem with it because it automatically credits me as the source and links back to my blog. For someone to take a photo and watermark it as their own though, I think is what pushes it over the line into being flat out unethical in my eyes.

        That being said, I think that very few people are in a position to say they have never violated copyright law – whether intentionally or unintentionally.

        Strict laws stifle creativity – so I don’t know what the answer is here. I really don’t think either extreme works, but the middle ground is complex as hell.

  5. I feel your outrage and agree it’s unethical. But your photos were so good that other people wanted to claim them. That’s a compliment.

    Love you. Grandma

    By the way, I like hot dogs from Costco best, but can’t really have them. Once in a while we’re bad and get them anyway.

    • Hi Grandma! :)

      “Imitation is the highest form of flattery” is something my Mom always used to say – somehow I always understood that but it never made me feel better LOL.

  6. I think that’s awful! I hear about this a lot. I’m not sure how I would know if someone took my pictures or not. Mine are mostly of my kids, so hopefully they wouldn’t, but people are crazy.
    Very smart to watermark the pics. I should start doing this, too. I went back up to look at your picture because I hadn’t even noticed the watermark.
    I left FB, too. Awhile ago. I think about it sometimes, but it was a huge time waster for me.

    • You’d be surprised by what people take. Your kids and photos are beautiful, so I would definitely watermark them. I remember a couple cases where people in the US discovered by chance that their photos had been stolen and were being used in advertisements and signs in other countries. Can you imagine your family photo in the window of a grocery store or on a billboard? LOL.

      I wish I could find a link to that story but I couldn’t come up with it just now. I did find this account of a woman having her children’s photos taken and used in scams to get people to donate money though. Ugh. How awful.

  7. Great post, Latinaish … living in Miami, we encounter this kind of culture shock all the time. Well, it’s not shocking to me, because I grew up here, but for many “Americans” it takes getting used to the idea that our large immigrant Latin population doesn’t operate by the same rules. I think you did the right thing. Creative commons is set in place for that reason and you should protect your intellectual property as best you can.

  8. This is a very contraversial topic. Everybody wants to be right, that’s why we all have a conflict in this country. Latinos don’t understand hueros and hueros don’t understand latinos, LOL. I was laughing as I read your post, it’s funny because I always comment when a huero does something ‘abnormal’ to us hahahaha. There’s no way that we can change our ways, everybody has a different culture and best of all different beliefs, imagine a world where everybody thinks alike???cool, but BORING…and HEY at the end of the day, we can’t change the world.

  9. Hi, Tracy! I love your blog. I’m also a gringa married to a Latino, so I’m getting some tips from you to integrate Spanish, etc. as our kids grow up. (Just one baby daughter right now, so just laying the foundation.)

    Anyway, I agree with you that it’s important to understand the ethics of different places. My husband was born in Mexico, and we’ve had this discussion a lot, not about IP specifically but about the difference between the US and Latin America in respecting the rule of law (eg, here many people will stop at a stop sign even if there’s not another car for miles). I think greater understanding of this difference would help in the immigration debate on both sides: both for latinos to gain a better understanding of why it’s a big deal for many gringos when laws are broken (I think a lot of Americans aren’t necessarily xenophobic, but they just don’t understand how one can let law-breaking slide); and for native-born Americans to appreciate that illegal immigrants aren’t trying to blatantly flaunt our laws to make a point or something, but are trying to do the right thing for themselves and their families.

    That said, I still think there are right and wrong regardless of cultural norms. If you grew up seeing your parents steal things all the time, and not out of necessity (or substitute another action most people would consider wrong), it would be part of your family culture and more understandable if you did the same; but still wrong, I’d argue. (And different cultures have different “sins” and “virtues” . . . so I think the US gets it right on a lot of these rule-of-law issues, but we’re also materialistic, individualistic, etc.)

    So in your case, it’s still not OK for people to take your pictures, but at least you have an understanding that their motives weren’t mean-spirited.

    OK, sorry for the long comment, and so delayed. Such an interesting topic.

    PS– the sewing on of clothing labels cracks me up!!

    • Excellent comment, Josie! Thanks for contributing to the discussion. I particularly like this point:

      “I think the US gets it right on a lot of these rule-of-law issues, but we’re also materialistic, individualistic, etc.”


      Thanks also for your kind words about my blog. Welcome, fellow gringa :)

  10. Your sense of right and wrong is the same as in El Salvador. It is a human trait that people will take advantage of whatever they can. Since the law is not strong, salvadorans know they can get away with what are considered little crimes that don’t hurt anyone. Sound universal?

    • Interesting theory, Roberto. I think there are some universal ethics – For example, is there a culture anywhere on Earth that feels it’s okay to murder someone without provocation/reason? (I add “without provocation” because almost all cultures make allowances for murder when they feel there’s justification) – but on smaller issues such as copyright, I really think that there is a cultural difference.

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