One of the biggest problems photographers face online is keeping track of all the uses of their images. The recent case of an ad agency using a Flickr image for its client Virgin Mobile  highlights this all too well.
Adding to the confusion is the Creative Commons (CC) license now in use. I won’t go into the gory details — you can review the history of it here . What is important to understand is that using a CC badge or credit will never prevent someone from using an image they see. The saying “locks are for honest people” was meant for situations like this. The vast number of creatives and agencies aren’t out to rip anyone off; it’s just not in their best interest, legally or ethically.
Unfortunately, while agencies may not be trying to deliberately avoid paying for an image used in a final campaign, they will grab whatever they can for free in the early presentation stages. If they can’t find it among Photodisc’s free comps, they’ll scan design annuals or Black Books, grab images off Flickr, the countless portfolio sites, you name it. Watermark your image? Sorry. We’ll just pull a screen grab and bump up the image in Photoshop.
But it’s not just about giving credit. A more basic rule was broken in the Virgin case: the girl in the photo was a minor. Using an image without compensation or credit is one thing, but she needed parental consent. Thing was, the CC mark must have made the ad agency giddy, because it grabbed a bunch of teen shots — one of which unfortunately was hers.
It’s happened to me as well. Years ago at one agency, before the Internet blew up, I used an image shot by a local photographer that was sent from our client. They insisted we had to use it. We asked if they had permission and had gotten clearance. The client, their assistant and their cleaning lady all swore they had. Good thing we made them sign a CYA release, as it turned out they hadn’t. The photographer just happened to walk into a retail store and spot that very image. (He was ultimately compensated by the client.)
In that instance, lack of the Internet meant that that photographer, if not for dumb luck, might never have seen that image. But at the other end of the spectrum, I’m not so sure today that we’re any better off. Conventional wisdom would suggest that it’s now too hard to steal online because it would be spotted right away. The opposite seems to be happening though; there are simply too many ways for an image to circulate that are beyond your control: Flickr, e-mail, Web sites, Google, etc.
I think Creative Commons has its heart in the right place, because it promotes a climate of sharing. But no system is 100 percent foolproof. Unless you can negotiate every possible scenario for how and where your image will be used, the only sure way to keep protected may just be to not post anything live anymore.
[tags]copyright, Flickr, photography law, Creative Commons[/tags]