When To Let Thieves Take Your Photos

For most photographers it’s outrageous, infuriating… and sometimes quite flattering too. The discovery that someone has taken a photo from their website or their Flickr stream and is using it without permission is both a nightmare for photographers and an inevitable risk of uploading photos. While it doesn’t happen to everyone, it does happen frequently enough to worry every online photographer.

But not all “photo thefts” are the same. When Icelandic photographer, Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir discovered that several of the images she’d placed on Flickr were being sold on eBay by a UK printing company, she was able to calculate the value of the prints sold at almost $5,000. That put a clear financial price on how much her copyright thieves had actually stolen.

When Lara Jade Coton, a British photography student, found that a self-portrait had been taken and used to promote a pornographic video however, the copyright infringement caused more damage to her sense of privacy than to her wallet (and a court case now under way will tell her how much that’s worth.)

And when The Economist’s blogs load up on Creative Commons Flickr images without informing their owners, they aren’t — strictly speaking — stealing at all. But not all the photographers we spoke to were happy to see their pictures on a Web page with advertising, and therefore in their eyes, commercial.

The problem for photographers is twofold. First, they have to protect themselves as much as they can. That can involve using watermarks; only uploading small images; and disabling the right mouse button, etc. But no measures are perfect.

“Reliance on DRM (digital rights management) is futile,” argues Allen Murabayashi, CEO of PhotoShelter.com, an online photo archive and distribution network. “There’s always gonna be some Swedish teen who can break your code.”

And the second is taking action once a copyright infringement has been discovered. Unless the infringement is particularly serious though, that usually involves letting the infringer know he’s been spotted and forcing him stop using the image. Even Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir had to make do with a letter from her lawyer and the removal of her images from eBay. She didn’t receive any compensation. “Recovering any money for infringements is a victory these days,” says Carolyn Wright, a photography lawyer.

That might be why Allen Murabayashi has a different proposal. “As an industry, we need to spend less time worrying about being ripped off, and spend more time making it easier for people to license,” he argues. “I will say that most photographers I’ve spoken to have a very realistic viewpoint of this. They don’t care if some kid rips off an image and uses it on their MySpace page. But they do care if that same image shows up on a t-shirt. So the distinction seems to be personal use versus commercial use.”

According to Allen then, photographers should simply accept the fact that their images are going to be used without their permission and only get angry when someone makes money from them.

Perhaps… or rather perhaps we have no choice. But maybe in addition to easier access to licensing — and perhaps clearer licenses too — photographers should be thinking about what they can demand in return for the unsolicited use of their images, such as a link back to their portfolio or a share of the advertising the page earns. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

One comment for this post.

  1. La Vie Viennoise Said:

    We do need some teeth in the law. It should be simpler for blatant abuse of copyright to be processed with a straight compensation scale. As it is now, only huge media companies with on staff lawyers are protected.

    There's something wrong with the system.

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