My photographs, and probably your work too, are routinely stolen and republished all over the internet.
I find it interesting to track my photos down through simple keyword and reverse image searches as well as with Pixsy.com. A neat plugin for Chrome allows you to simply left click an image and search for it across multiple search engines.
Sometimes, I find that my work has been used in a positive way and it’s pretty exciting, such as when Huffington Post ran my photo of investigative journalist, Sonia Shah. Nobody told me about it because I’d taken her portrait for the release of her book several years ago and after that, publishers used and reused the images. They don’t need my permission to run these photos as they were already paid for and license granted, but I just like to see where they end up!
So that’s a cool surprise to find your image on a reputable site, aiding in important news. But what also happens is that my images are used in a way that I did not envision them to be used and don’t particularly care for.
I took this photo of a little doorway inside of an old train tunnel a few years back. I wouldn’t say that it nearly cost me my life to take it but, unexpectedly, I found myself too deep in the tunnel to make it out safety before a train came charging down the tracks. I had to take cover inside this doorway as an inexplicably loud and massive train plowed through, only a few feet away. Suffice to say, when I show this image in local galleries, small magazines, etc, I’m pretty proud of it.
So you might imagine my anger to find that it had been edited and used without permission as the background for somebody’s goofy cartoon character. This edit was posted to two social media websites, from which more than a dozen scraper sites then re-posted it and made it available for “FREE DOWNLOAD.”
When I see this sort of thing, my first move is to reach out to the infringing party directly and ask them if they’d like to purchase a license or to kindly remove my content. I have a document that one of my clients, an attorney, drafted for me. The letter has been effective in recovering damages from businesses. However, being that this appeared to be a “lone wolf” from whom I didn’t expect any licensing agreement or compensation to result, and that the image had already “gone viral,” I chose a more definitive course of action.
I began by filing DMCA Takedown Requests through Google. What this does is remove the entire page from Google search results. Importantly, one must understand that this does not remove the page or the content from the page and I do not believe that the owner is informed of the takedown. There is a public record of DMCA filings though and this is often noted at the bottom of search results from Google. This stops people and other sites from finding an image. Sorta slows down the bleeding, if you will.
I filed complaints with each of the sites sharing this edited version of my image. Most of which, as stated, were scraper sites and may simply disappear in a short time anyway. But there it is, Step One to regaining control over my intellectual property.
Next, I went to the two social media sites that were hosting the original edited copies of the image. These were Deviant Art and Instagram.
In order to report copyright issues on Deviant Art, one must scroll through a long legalese explanation of terms and have an account or provide a standard, legal list of information to them either via email or snail mail. Like many sites, they make it difficult and time consuming to file a complaint. That’s, of course, the idea. Many tech companies still don’t see themselves as gatekeepers of intellectual property and they don’t seem to want to deal with infringement. Which is shitty because the site made it pretty easy for the thief to post someone else’s work, yet it’s very difficult for the owner to have it removed. So I did this but I also filed a complaint to them via Pixsy.
Pixsy is an image theft protection site that not only helps artists search for their photos across the net but facilitates legal action with their own team of lawyers. I haven’t been compensated for any damages by using this site but it’s helped get a lot of my stolen work removed. And that is what happened in this case with Deviant Art. They didn’t respond to my personal message but, the next day, responded to the Pixsy takedown request by doing exactly that.
Instagram, to my surprise, given their track record with folks like Richard Prinz, was much easier to deal with than Deviant Art. They have a straightforward, easy-to-locate form to fill out. The form is identical to Facebook’s so I guess IG got this when FB bought them. Amazingly, I was notified by email only a few minutes later that Instagram had removed the content.
Total content removal is the goal. Removing it from search will slow down the subsequent theft but once the illegal source is gone, the rest of the path begins to crumble with 404 errors. The sooner you destroy the first source, the better your chance of totally halting the spread of your misappropriated content. The longer you wait, well, be prepared to lose any and all control of your photograph…
Years ago, I was honored that a photo I took of a shopping cart was featured in an article about Minimalist photography. But then the article went viral and so did copies of my image. At first, I found just a few different variations on the original article. Then I began seeing instances of my image popping up on its lonesome. And thanks to the generous negative space, my photograph soon got overrun with numerous graphic designers’ graffiti. In fact, I even found one while writing this and reported it to Facebook. Gone!
My 15 Minute Shopping Cart image appears to have sold all order of merchandise and services all over the world. And very little of that money has come back to me. The main offenders are in China and Russian where U.S. authorities really cannot stop anyone from doing whatever they want with our intellectual property.
Due to its ubiquity, a handful of people have actually requested permission to use my shopping card image for their sites and compensated or credited me as we agreed. But there are usually ten to twenty pages of illegal, unethical uses of my photo in Google search at any given moment and the number is always growing and changing.
One blogger who stole my shopping cart image got her attorney involved when I contacted her. The attorney claimed that because the blogger did not know the image was not public domain, she was not accountable for compensating me. My attorney says different, but one has to pick their battles because copyright infringement cases can cost the plaintiff quite a deal of money until they win. Copyright infringement cases can only be tried in district courts if the infringement is local to the owner. Everything else, which is most of what happens online, has to be heard by the Supreme Court, as I understand. And of course you need a pricey copyright lawyer for this, in addition to all the legal fees. The photographer pretty much has to be independently wealthy to launch such a case. Putting it into perspective, it’s not surprising that each instance of infringement of a copyrighted image in the U.S. can cost the thief up to $150,000 USD.
So anyway, that’s a little rundown on some of my experiences with folks stealing my photographs online. I’m not an attorney and I don’t even claim to be an expert on the subject, just a photographer doing what I can to protect my work and how it is used. I hope that some my links and recommendations have been handy although I’m sure that every shooter has their own methods. If you have any suggestions for me or just want to share your own experiences and methods for dealing with copyright infringement, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
Thank for reading and keep fighting the good fight!