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Are You Stealing Pictures?

I found this image posted and reposted without my permission over 30 times! Copyright  Andy Richards

I found this image posted and reposted without my permission over 30 times!
Copyright Andy Richards

Stealing. Theft. Larceny. Strong words, I know. But let’s call it what it is.

In the past couple weeks, I discovered some widespread copying, using, posting and re-posting of several of my photographic images.  I spent a couple hours making DMCA Takedown Requests / Notices. I resent having to spend my time doing that, but it has unfortunately become part of  today’s “e-world.”  I am learning that we need to be to be vigilant and pro-active about protecting our property.  Thanks to my good friend and great photographer, Carol Smith, a the heads up on this!

Part of the problem, of course, is that I am “preaching to the choir” here, as I assume most of the readers are sympathetic photographers. But perhaps there is a takeaway here.  As a group of “like minded” individuals (and I do realize how ironic it is that I am suggesting that a group of free-spirited artists might be like minded :-)) perhaps we can be more proactive about protecting our rights—and about educating our readers and visitors to our sites. Why do I feel so passionate about this subject?

Whatever you “don’t know,” there is one thing you undeniably do know: They are not yours!

Our U.S. Constitution empowered Congress to enact the U.S. Copyright Laws.  Article 8 provides that Congress may enact laws “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

Unlike objects of physical property, our rights to the images we make are intangible. We refer to this intellectual property (“IP”). But note the word “property” is still front and center. There is a common attitude that it’s not really something. It’s just a copy and when I take a copy of someone else’s image, I haven’t really taken it. They still have their original. That is simply incorrect and any reasonably intelligent person intuitively knows it. Use of images “found” on the internet without permission just doesn’t pass the proverbial “smell test.” It is still property. Someone else’s property! We do own it. And we do have a perfectly reasonable right to expect that others won’t appropriate it for their own use, no matter how “innocent” their claimed use may be.

The universal attitude seems to be: “if it is posted on the internet, it is free for the taking”

I continue to be surprised and dismayed at the (seemingly) universally prevalent attitude that “if it is posted somewhere on the internet, it is free for the taking.” The internet is not some vast, galactic “lost and found.” It is a virtual space. But just because it is virtual rather than physical does not negate the property rights we have in physical spaces. Not for a minute do I believe that the typical citizen, seeing my car parked in my own driveway, but with the keys in the ignition, would believe it is “o.k.” to jump in and take if for a spin (even if I should be “flattered” that they like my car enough to do that);  or, if my camera or phone was set down on a bench while I napped, that they could take it and keep it for their own use (or rifle through my bag as I slept)–at least not without acknowledging larcenous intent.  Indeed, I doubt a reasonable-minded person would think it permissible to come into my house or place of work physically, and download my images onto a thumb drive.

But if it is on the internet, these same (so-called) “reasonable-minded” persons have no shame about right-clicking and taking our images for their own use.  How is the end-result different?  Why is one method of theft “o.k.” and the other unthinkable? Is it that we really aren’t a moral society? Is it that we are all larcenous at heart, but we just don’t want to get caught? 🙂  Hmnn. I so want to believe (and hope) that isn’t the case.

The internet is not some vast, galactic “lost and found”

Part of it is technology. It is easy to do. It doesn’t require a great deal of effort or thought. It doesn’t cost anything. And the vast majority of uses are seemingly, innocent enough. It is just going to be my screensaver, or used to illustrate a point on my blog, or on my Pinterest™ site because I thought is was beautiful (more next week on Pinterest), or perhaps its even placed on an “educational” site.

None of the above makes it right! It is still someone else’s property. And when you take it, whether you know where it came from, or who the author is, or any other thing, there is one thing you do know. It is not yours!

Merely posting one of my images on your “educational” website is not necessarily fair use

When debating this issue, I encounter several popular arguments:

I am not using it for financial gain; it is just on my computer as a screensaver. No harm, no foul.” Not really. If I take your car without your permission, use it while you aren’t using it, fill it up with gas and put it back in your driveway (all without your permission and probably without your knowledge, is that o.k. with you? No harm, no foul, after all). And, you are using it for your own financial gain. If you didn’t steal it from me, you probably would have had to pay for it. U.S. copyright law is very clear. That is financial gain.

Sorry, I didn’t know it was yours. I’ll take it down.”  Thanks, I appreciate that. But…..nice try. I’ll give you that you didn’t know it was mine. But there is something you did know. You knew it was not yours.

My use is ‘fair use”.'” Well. Maybe. But you better do your homework. Fair use can be criticism, parody, scholarly research and a use in the process of education. But fair use is a defense to an infringement claim. It is not a “safe-harbor” exception to the copyright laws. So you had better be able to demonstrate your “fair use” in the context of your posting. Merely posting one of my images on your “educational” website is not necessarily fair use.

What’s the big deal?  Most People are flattered that people are putting their images up and getting them thousands of views by potential buyers.”  If you want to flatter me by showcasing my image(s), there is a very simple way.  Link to it!  That gets it views, while keeping it resident on my own site, where I get full credit and control over its use.  Or, just do the old fashioned, courteous thing which our digitally driven society has completely forgotten:  ask permission.

This Burton Hill, Vermont Image is another popular "theft" itemCopyright  2010  Andy Richards

This Burton Hill, Vermont Image is another popular “theft” item
Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

I am not a professional photographer. I would count myself an advanced hobbyist photographer. I have sold some of my images, but I certainly don’t make my living from photography. Indeed, I don’t even come close to paying a fraction of the costs of this rather expensive hobby. But I have friends who do make all or part of their living from photography. To them, your unauthorized use of their image is not just theft. It’s taking food off of their tables and making it tougher for them to pay the light bill.

A fair question might be: what am I doing to prevent unauthorized access and protect my imagery? I have set up my SmugMug™ site so that a right-click will not allow copying the image and will instead give a notice that the image is copyrighted. That is easy enough to do. But it doesn’t stop a creative viewer from using one of the ubiquitous free browser add-ins to do a “screen capture.” I also know there is watermarking software available and most hosting sites offer it as an option. When I first set up my LightCentric Photography site, I put up images with watermarks. I almost universally hear that they watermarks detracted from the presentation of the photographs. If I am displaying photographs for sale, why would I continue to do something that might put off a possible purchaser? I understand that sites like Pinterest have code I can install to prevent them from copying from my site, and I will surely be looking into that. But isn’t it interesting how we have suddenly shifted the attention and blame away from the thief to the victim here?

For me, it is not so much a financial issue (don’t get me wrong, if you take one of my images that I sell, I am going to expect payment from you when I come knocking), but an issue of being wronged. I have never had the misfortune of someone breaking into my house and stealing things. But I know people who have. Their universal comment is that it is not the loss of those replaceable items—it is the feeling of being violated. It really isn’t any different when I see one of my images on the internet on a site or in an area where the thief didn’t even bother to ask my permission before his “innocent” use of the something she knew wasn’t hers!

There is a foreign hosted site that has this one up on a promotional page

There is a foreign hosted site that has this one up on a promotional page
Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

Next Week: How to Make a DMCA Takedown Request

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7 Responses

  1. Good luck. A few years ago, Bob Dylan said “Music ain’t worth nothing.” Legendary photographer Jay Maisel was attacked when he billed another “net” photographer for using his image. Tony Hawk (not his real name because he works for a brokerage house) lead the charge with other internet photographers. Meanwhile, for all artists — photographers, painters, writers and musicians — earnings have dropped because EVERYBODY thinks our work should be free if it’s on the net. In my other life, I learned that most working musicians have given up and look at having their songs, their concerts and their work being shown on YouTube (one of many) as a way of promotion like being on the radio… except they make about 12 cents every time a song is legally played.

    I’m with you and I’ll stand with you… for obvious reasons. But, unfortunately, the horse is way out of the barn.

    • Thanks Ray, as always, for your comments and insights. Strange–I replied to this earlier and it appears to be nowhere to be found. Maybe somebody infringed it 🙂

      I appreciate that my comments here are but a grain of sand on all the beaches on earth. I suppose there is a strong “Quixotic” element to the battle, but I believe it continues to be worth fighting.

      • Andy, I do too. It’s just so out of hand. And, then there is the Creative Commons model that really makes a mockery of current copyright laws.

  2. What a coincidence Andy – I was just writing up a related post on reverse image searches. While I know you have some objections to watermarks, my understanding is that they do provide some legal protections, particularly if they are removed. It serves as evidence of “intent to infringe” I believe. The only objections I have ever encountered with watermarks are from other photographers, who don’t generally buy other photographers work anyway. 🙂

    As a matter of fact, when I was doing some trials on reverse image searches, I encountered an infringement by a DJ who used one of my images as an electronic album cover for a mix he posted online. I simply sent him a bill. Amazing how fast his album cover changed.

  3. Mark: You make a good point with the watermarks. It may be time for me to re-think that. I will be very interested to read your post!

  4. Andy, one of the positives about posting photos on SmugMug and the like is they get a lot of viewers. On the other hand, people know where to go if they want to get a free image. I’m sure my photos get many fewer views than they would if they were posted on a site like SmugMug but to my knowledge, none of my photos have been used without my permission.

    • Al: I doubt that it is SmugMug that is where my photos are generally being taken from. It is pretty secure. I know that any enterprising person can get an image from a screen shot (from your site as well as my SmugMug site). But most of these folks appear to be right-clicking and re-posting. My guess it that they are getting them from places like my blog. Ironically, I let a friend re-post a blog of mine a couple years back and the GH Owl image was in that one. I was able to trace the source back to her blog in several of the instances.

      But, IMO, that seems to miss the point. The point is that whether it is easy or hard, it is simply wrong. If you lock your car and keep it in the garage and I leave mine in the driveway with the keys in it, while it is easier for the thief to take mine (and I am perhaps being foolhardy), it is just as wrong to steal my car as it is yours. And it really is a shame that I cannot put my car where I want it to be – why should the thieves dictate the rules? I realize I am tilting at windmills :-).

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