Who Will Steal Your Images?


Many veteran photographers who have dozens and dozens of photographs published each year are finding that the public is stealing those images and not paying for them. More importantly, those photographers don’t care.

“What!?” you ask.

Yes, it’s true. But I’m not talking about the internet. Those high-quality images are being stolen from magazines, calendars, textbooks, brochures, newspapers and other periodicals. And no one is policing these.

To steal them, the culprits are using low-tech tools: scissors and razor blades. It’s been going on since the printing press was invented.

It’s even happening in your own household. Look around your home. On your kitchen bulletin board, your refrigerator, your child’s bedroom wall. Some are in frames in your neighbor’s den or your best friend’s studio or workshop. All stolen.

They’re Free, Aren’t They?

It’s no wonder the general public believes the images they find on the interest are free also.

I can remember when color copiers became popular. Photographers learned color photocopies of their images were being used by art directors in layout mock-ups to influence a client’s decision. The photography community became incensed and mounted a campaign to take art directors to court if they “illegally” used a color photocopy of a photographer’s image in a comp. The effort got no results.  The crusade died out.

Unable to stop this type of rampant “misuse” of their photos, photographers gradually realized that this practice was actually becoming a free promotion for them. Art directors would follow the trail and learn the name of the photographer.

What’s the Difference Now?

Now it’s common practice for art directors to “borrow” images for comps, from magazines, stock agencies, on-line galleries, books and search sites.

Photographers who cannot remember this history lesson are up in arms again.  They are declaring there must be a stop to the practice of “web borrowing.”

Policing internet borrowing is becoming nearly impossible. So the question is: Should you put your stock photos up on the Internet and promote them, or should you hide them and protect them?

To Sue or Not to Sue

Do your clients steal images? Professional editorial photobuyers, art directors, researchers, or photo editors – these professionals have little to gain by infringement, and much of their reputation to lose.

Most stories of thievery that have been reported to me have usually been hearsay. When I ask for documentation, it’s usually a case where the photo was illegally used for a private website decoration, Boy Scout newsletter, foreign regional magazine, or due to plain “innocent” ignorance on the part of an amateur printer or designer.

The bare bones bottom line for you as an editorial stock photographer is, “Do I want to pursue such small infringers with litigation?”

My advice is “no.” If you do take on such an infringer, it’ll turn out to be a good education, and as you know, education has always been costly. You’ll learn a lot about lost time and the cost of attorney and court fees.

Infringement Cases Are Expensive and, Usually, Futile

In the early days of the Internet, there were a few spectacular court cases regards infringement, but the issue has leveled out. It’s rare that you’ll find infringement by a genuine thief. You’ll find some infrequent examples of “innocent infringers,” but the court most always rules in their favor. [Section 107 of the Copyright Law].

Getty Images and some other large agencies such as MasterFile have a “top cop” department to scan the internet for misappropriation of their images. And, they can afford the attorney fees to follow up. They make a side business out of “finding the criminals.” And “extorting” a handsome fee, according to some industry watchdogs. But in Getty’s consideration, it’s the best way to protect their contributors as well as bring stock photo thievery to the attention of the public. It’s their job.

Blowback Is a Danger

However, sometimes its public relations image is tarnished like recently, when it went after the tiny blog, My Inspiration Network and its owner, Bernard Charles. The impoverished blogger is in the process of asking for $20 subscriber donations to meet Getty’s demand for $400 or “see you in court.”

To me it seems counter-productive to engage your personal time and finances in going after anyone you may discover “borrowing” your image. Perhaps most sensible is to send them a cease-and-desist letter, (there are plenty of examples on the web) or ask them to put up a billboard-size credit line for you. Then carry on with what you’re good at, shooting editorial stock.

The Future of ‘Web Borrowing’

There are indications that “web borrowing” will be encouraged in the future. Photometadata is being developed to the point where art directors and photo editors will be able to view a picture on the internet, and as long as the data has not been purged, it will reveal all the profile details for an interested buyer to download and contact the individual photographer.

And what’s even better, future supersmartphone manufacturers will hardwire your profile and a promotion into each image that you take, (“Thanks for you interest in this photo, Buy this one and receive two additional ones at a 30 percent discount. I look forward to working with you.”)

It’s always nice to have photobuyers coming to you, rather than the other way around.

Let yourself feel an ease of mind about this big question of internet thievery. Free up your productive energy now to meet the enjoyable challenges of your editorial stock photography. Get those images out there for all to enjoy.


2 Responses to “Who Will Steal Your Images?”

  1. "It’s even happening in your own household. Look around your home. On your kitchen bulletin board, your refrigerator, your child’s bedroom wall. Some are in frames in your neighbor’s den or your best friend’s studio or workshop. All stolen."

    Not at all. The printed copies are theirs. First Sale Doctrine.

    But as I wrote in a recent blog post on sharing the modern day equivalent of putting postcards and clippings on the wall is to post them to your Facebook page. For the user it is exactly the same behaviour, but in a different medium.

    Photographers should see it as an opportunity not a threat.

  2. So when does it become OK to steal or is borrowing the new acronym for theft.

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