Waiting to become a successful photographer can be pretty frustrating. You want to make the sales that prove you’re creating powerful images. You want the attention and respect of other photographers. You want to be a leader in the world of photography. And it’s not happening quite yet. But for those photographers who have already achieved success, life isn’t always easy either. Even Annie Leibovitz has run into more than her fair share of trouble, putting up her entire photography collection as collateral on a multi-million dollar loan. That sort of debt might not be something you ever run into, but there are a bunch of other dangers you might well find yourself coming up against as your name becomes known and your images become popular.
The biggest risk is that your photographs will be copied and used without your permission. To some extent that’s almost inevitable. Bloggers are renowned for their lax attitude towards copyright issues. But because few blogs make money, few photographers pay much attention. For those who are bothered, it’s usually enough to point out that an image is copyrighted to persuade a photographer to take it down and swap it for another image.
Printing Company Stole Thousands
A bigger problem is when companies use those images for their own commercial benefit without permission and without paying royalties. Each sale made by the firm is a sale lost to the photographer. In effect, it’s a theft of earnings, and sometimes those earnings can be meaningful. In 2007, Flickr icon Rebekka Gudsleifdottir famously discovered that several of her pictures had been used by UK printing company, Only Dreemin. Tracking customer feedback on the site, Rebekka was able to estimate that the company had managed to generate about $4,840 in sales from her images. In response to a letter from Rebekka’s lawyer, the company claimed that they had bought the images in good faith from a third party which had now disappeared. The images were removed from sale but Rebekka never saw her royalties.
There are now services available that can reduce the risk of image theft. Products like Attributor and PicScout can search the Web for your photos and inform you of copyright infringement. They may even contact the image thief and demand damages on your behalf, particularly if the usage was commercial. For big photography companies — and top photographers — it’s a cost of doing business.
It’s not just the images that can be stolen though. Other photographers have seen their entire business model plagiarized. Build a good, professional website, create effective copy and offer a working business model and you might well find that others rush in behind you and copy your work. They might not be stealing your images but in copying the way you find clients, they can weaken your brand and remove your advantage.
To some extent, copying will be inevitable. It’s part of being a leader rather than a follower. But there are limits. Grace Chon, Los Angeles’ leading pet photographer, has long battled against competitors who didn’t just try to copy her way into the marketplace but who lifted her marketing copy from her website word-for-word. Back in 2008, she was already challenging other photographers to be fresh and original, after spotting a copycat pet photographer plagiarizing her website. That wasn’t the last time though, and it wasn’t the worst time. Earlier this year, Grace complained to a copycat’s hosting company that one of their clients had broken copyright. In the following spat, her own site was temporarily taken down by her hosting company on the grounds that it was unable to assess which site was online first and which owned the rights to the site’s text.
Pointing out to a competitor that you’ve spotted them stealing your content may well be enough to force them to change, but it’s rarely a good idea to get into a full-scale fight about stealing marketing copy — however just the battle may be. A smarter position might be to assume that a competitor who needs to steal to reach the marketplace is never going to conquer it. Cheats don’t prosper because they’re cheats. They don’t prosper because they’re aren’t talented enough to do it for themselves.
Stock Pictures Look the Same for a Reason
Stealing marketing copy is surprisingly common. In response to Grace’s initial posting about the conflict on her Facebook page, a number of other businesses commented that the same thing had happened to them.
Even more common though is that when you create successful images, other photographers will copy your approach. They won’t copy the image itself, but they’ll try to figure out what made the picture successful, what buyers saw in it, how you shot it — and they’ll try to produce more of the same.
It’s particularly a problem for stock photographers. Microstock sites allow users to see which images have sold the most downloads, helping buyers to focus their searches on the photos that other users have considered the highest quality. That also alerts other photographers to the pictures that are currently the most popular among buyers, encouraging them to shoot their own versions of the same style.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Producers should move towards the market, and if you can’t learn from the success of others, who should you learn from? But it is a problem for photographers who have managed to build a name for themselves, who have created a brand for their photographs and who are trying to stand out from the crowd. It’s not easy to do when the crowd keep following you.
If all of those challenges, from thieves stealing your pictures to sell them, through copycats swiping your business model, to followers seeing you as the photographer to copy, sound daunting then it’s worth remembering that there are plenty of advantages to being successful too. Mimicry is the highest form of flattery, having followers means that you’re a leader, and being seen to be a leader marks you as the best in the market.
And the money is nice too.