Throughout my career as a commercial photographer, I have had a fairly consistent attitude about copyright theft (and its impact on my imagery.) This was based on my world-view of the photography market and my ability to realistically respond/control that. A recent experience has shown me that my attitude was, to put it bluntly, wrong.
I make my living creating intellectual property (photographs) so the theft of intellectual property in general and photographs in particular is an issue I follow closely. I regularly read magazine articles, blogs, newspaper pieces and opinion columns on the topic. I am hardly an expert but I am well versed in the subject.
Because of that, I have ignored much of the noise on the web where people hyperventilate about such image theft because:
Their reactions are often completely disproportionate to the supposed “theft.”
The purported thieves are often little more than high school students using images for book reports, fan sites, personal blogs and the like.
The thefts involve little or no economic gain and so no lawyer would waste time on such cases. Without a lawyer, no serious recovery of money is going to occur.
Having said that, I do work with a lawyer who pursues certain cases involving the kind of larger, institutional or organizational offenders who misuse my work. Then again, unlike 99% of the photographers babbling on the web, I actually register every single image that I make with Library of Congress. I have done that diligently since 2001. That is when the law was changed from a system of one image per registration to an plan where an unlimited number of images (all within one year) can be submitted for one registration fee.
In another venue, we could argue about whether it is “fair” or “right” to require creators of intellectual property to register their work with Library of Congress. All I know is that by registering my work, I am guaranteeing myself certain rights, including the imposition of severe financial penalties on offenders if I successfully prove they have violated my copyright. Under American law, those penalties are ONLY applicable if the intellectual property in question has been registered with the Library of Congress. I do not make the rules, but my business depends on my following them.
Michael Colby, a much more diligent follower of trends than I, recently sent me a link to a stunning blog that identifies photographers who use the work of other photographers and claim it is their own (clear examples of stealing and copyright theft) called Stop Stealing Photos The woman behind the Tumblr (Corey Balazowich) describes it as “a wall of shame dedicated to photographers that feel that it’s okay to steal others work and post it as their own.”
It is really worth spending time with scrolling up and down that Tumblr. Frankly, I did not read much of the back and forth, especially the dodging and excuse-making spouted by the thieves and their “supporters.” No, I mostly looked at the posted images and then the source images. Scroll down the Tumblr and after you see one interesting image, you can see where it was stolen from. The amazing part of the Stop Stealing Photos Tumblr is how this goes on and on and on. One image-stealing photographer is annoying. A culture of image stealing photographers is pathetic (and scary!)
So this is where things have devolved to…. People steal the hard work of others and clearly pass it off as their own. And they do this in such a way that almost insures they get will caught. These same thieves then defend themselves by attacking the messenger and spouting other lies and evasions.
After reading a few pages, of the Stop Stealing Photos Tumblr, I realized I was guilty of a failure of imagination. Up until that moment, I had simplistically (and erroneously) divided copyright thieves into two categories;
What I think of as high school students misusing my images for book reports, whose infringements are not worth my pursuing.
Institutions/organizations that had misused my work and had gained substantively from that misuse, whose infringements are worth my pursuing.
Assuming Ms. Balazowich’s research is accurate, there now needs to be a third category:
Sub-human scum who both lack the talent to create their own images AND who lack the moral compass that would tell a normal person that using other people’s work as their own is morally repugnant (and criminally wrong.).
I was wrong, but they were even more wrong.
You can see more on this issue by watching the wedding photographer Gary Fong as he interviews Corey Doyle Balazowich http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ho6YvDUFah4&feature=youtu.be
Next week, I will write more about this issue and the sometimes fuzzy line between the borrowing of ideas/concepts as compared to blatant theft of intellectual property.