Stop Whining About Copyright Infringement and Start Doing Something About It

When photographers have their work stolen and used by businesses, publications and individuals without permission and in violation of the photographer’s implicit copyright, it is usually the photographer’s fault. It is also the dividing line that separates professionals from amateurs.

Chasing Infringers

Traditionally, the way to protect your work from copyright infringement has been to register it with the copyright office and pursue infringers with the threat of a lawsuit. For some professional photographers, this is actually a profit center. Not for me. I can’t stand the idea of using this method of protecting my work as a way to make money.

Instead, the best way to avoid infringement is not to give anyone the chance. A very successful example of this strategy is music for sale on iTunes. You can listen to a sample, but to hear the whole thing you have buy it. When photographers show work online that is big, has no watermark and no meta data in the image file, it’s ripe for infringement and misuse.

My experience on my own blog has taught me that large pictures should never be posted online. Over the years, I’ve discovered that several images I published early on have been misused. I’ve found some instances of infringement through my Web tracking software. Who knows how many other businesses, organizations and people have infringed my work? This was a mistake on my part, and I’ve learned from it.

I can almost hear the advocates of copyright registration now, arguing that these infringers should be punished. But the reality is that pursuing infringements, for most of us, is a waste of time that diverts our attention from more important things. So I chalk up those early instances of infringement to a learning experience and move on.

Even large media companies are finding out the hard way just how difficult it is to track down and sue people who have essentially stolen their intellectual property, most often in the form of music or video.

The iTunes Approach

So why not, instead, do what iTunes has done?

Showing work on the Internet is an integral strategy for any photography business today. Think of images online as a contact sheet. Size them appropriately.

I don’t post anything larger than 400 pixels. And my slideshows don’t allow the viewer the ability to click through individual images, thereby decreasing the chance that people will infringe on my work.

It’s time to stop whining about copyright infringement and start doing something about it — by tightly controlling the viewing conditions and access to your images online. This is the surest way for professional photographers to profit from their intellectual property while avoiding infringement.

[tags]copyright, photography business[/tags]

7 Responses to “Stop Whining About Copyright Infringement and Start Doing Something About It”

  1. While I agree with the overall attitude of doing something about the issue, I have to caution that protection schemes, such as the ones you mention, are not the whole of the solution. Detection and cessation are still important.

    For example, low resolution images hinder printing, but not reuse on the Web. Likewise, using flash apps hinders some means of getting an image, but others can grab it.

    There has to be a balance of techniques used.

    On that note though, thank you very much for addressing this serious issue and calling attention to the problem.

  2. I believe the major place for infringement is the web. So while doing all you suggest will diminish infringement it is still usable images because they are good enough quality for the photographer to show their work on the web.

    I think your suggestions are great, but done alone will still leave one vulnerable. What about all the prints you give the brides? They can go to the corner drug store and copy and make prints themselves. I think while one cannot stop this either, having the prints with stamp on the front with your logo in the corner of the print and copyright information on the back of the prints will help to educate your audience.

    Brian Smith founder of EP has started putting his logo on the side of all images on line. The metadata is easily stripped and until Adobe removes this ability with the "save for web" many of your images you sell to your clients to use on-line will loose your copyright information.

    I think we may need to ask our clients to use our name with copyright symbol when posting to the web adjacent to the photo, but part of the photo may be another way to help protect your images.

    I think one needs to register their images first. I think then photographers need to be sure and educate their clients appropriately about copyright and usage of the images. And anyway a photographer can embed in the metadata as well as part of the photo their copyright will help ensure that violators will have been fully aware of the copyright before they break the law is very important.

  3. Stanley,

    You're right. The worst place for copyright infringement is the web. It's also the worst place for photographers to try and monetize their work. The real money is in the physical world. So the trick is to keep your work from traveling from the internet to the real world.

    It isn't a question that today the web is the best place to market and advertise.

    But, the web is also one gigantic commons that is increasingly getting harder to police. Take it from me, whether you have a watermark, copyright registration or not... Anything you put online should be expected to be copied, infringed upon and ultimately shared.

    That's what makes the web such an incredible platform for growing a business.

    It's also the chief reason why images should be limited in size and the viewing conditions and access to images should be strictly controlled by the photographer.

    Certainly registering your images will protect you. But that protection isn't primarily protection from infringement online, rather it's from infringement by a magazine editor, ad agency or anyone else who wants to create a material product using the work.

    By strictly controlling the size of images (and I admit 400 px is still too big) as well as the number of images posted online you're diminishing the possibility of having your work misused for someone else's monetary gain. And that's the point isn't it?

    The real question for me is not why or how to educate clients on copyright infringement, they already know what they're doing is wrong. One of the first things prospective clients ask me about is a copyright release.

    The real question is how to use the web as an effective platform to show work and advertise services and at the same time reduce the chance of infringement in the real world.

    This is a practical approach for someone who creates a hundred thousand images a year and sells them through the internet.

    Thanks for very much for your thoughts!

  4. Great post! Yes, losing pictures on the web or to the corner drug stores scanner is a real issue. It seems like every obstacle that you put in place is hacked soon after.
    For new Photographers that are looking for ways to protect their images, I would suggest visiting:
    They suggest using a great website product that continually focuses on new ways to protect your images.
    Good Luck! Kallan

  5. Sean,

    I have to disagree about this comment of yours.

    "The real money is in the physical world. So the trick is to keep your work from traveling from the internet to the real world."

    The web is the fastest growing area in communication period. Not learning how to make a living with it and only posting your portfolio or for someone to buy images is very, very short sighted.

    I am shooting multimedia packages regularly for clients. This is the biggest booming area I have seen in a very long time.

    Protecting your images is important and you point out great ways to do this.

    Learning to make money with the web is where the growth will be in the next few years for photographers. The other areas will always be there, but I guarantee most advertising and companies are not focusing on print as much as the web. This is why newsPAPERS are dying.

  6. Hi Stanley,

    Thanks for your comments. I know that if we lived close to each other we would meet regularly for coffee and have a great time discussing some of these issues. And I'm really glad we're able to talk here and not in a combative way. So thank you!

    I do agree with you that the web is an incredible platform. It's dynamic and there are a myriad of ways to create income by using it.

    I think of the web as one more prong in the fork of content distribution. Multi-media projects like the ones you mentioned are certainly viable.

    But, the real value in something like that happens in conjunction with a printed product; a physical product. Publishing online in conjunction with publishing in the real world provides the most impact. They should be done to complement each other.

    So, if you have a limited news hole, you might run a brief feature piece with a tag inviting people to visit a web site to see more.

    I do this all of the time in my print advertisements for wedding photography. It's typically the path that new customers take to find me. They start in the real world and move to the web. (I like to think of the web as a terrible way to start your search, but a great way to find the answers.)

    Newspapers, magazines and commercial businesses are doing this too.

    The trick is how to entice a viewer to see more. That's what I mean by real money. If you can move content on both platforms you're much more successful in attracting an interested audience and advertisers interested in both platforms.

    Not everyone uses the web and (I might try and argue;) more people see a newspaper, magazine, poster or billboard. That means that the hook of any campaign, mulit-media project or news story remains in the real world. That may be changing, but I still think it's the right approach.

    Ok, so back to this business about newspapers dying. I've written about this before.

    They aren't dying. They are changing and they will continue to change as content distribution and advertising revenue changes. There will always be newspapers and they will be distributed, but perhaps not at the same size or breadth that they are today.

    Content and content creators are also changing. That is part of the pain that photojournalists are feeling. Photojournalist who don't find a niche are in trouble.

    Thanks again for making this a great topic for discussion! It's wandered a bit, but I think in the right direction.

    p.s. i accidentally posted this comment on the article i referenced. my apologies for any confusion.

  7. Sean:

    There is really no way to protect your images except not show them to anyone.

    Next to this, you can be sure your name is on the photo and not just embedded when posting to the web as you have noted.

    Lawyers will sometimes take a case of infringement even if the image hasn't been registered, but it is best to have a work flow in place that includes registering your images regularly. This way you can recover the legal fees which can start as high as $100,000.

    We all will continue to whine because many people's ethics keeps them stealing our images, even if you do everything as mentioned.

    I think the backbone of most communication will become for most if not already the web. I then think other print material will support this.

    While many photographers continue to struggle making money as editorial photographers it can be done. It requires a lot of business and marketing skills which is really what many photographers lack.

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