Stealing Photos

stacie-photo-stolen-smOh, man.  It’s happened again.  Stacie Frazier is no stranger to having her photos used without permission in boudoir Groupon ads.  Yesterday, someone called her attention to the latest offender.  But it’s only one of several new incidents I’ve picked up on in the last several days.

Stealing photos has become so common, and it’s such a transparent activity, that I honestly think some people don’t think of it as “stealing” at all.  And even stranger, I think those who do believe they’re doing something at least a little dishonest by passing other people’s work off as their own, also fail to realize how the internet works.  Hey, putting up a website or buying a Groupon ad isn’t the same as printing up a flyer; this stuff’s instantaneously GLOBAL and searchable, and kind of “permanent record” as it remains living somewhere on the internet.

What We Want

The internet is about sharing (in some cases, oversharing).  We photographers upload our images so that we can share them, and to allow others to share the photos, via links, etc.  But we want to have some kind of control over that sharing.

  • We generally don’t want others to copy and repost without permission
  • We want credit for our work
  • We don’t want others to display it as their work
  • We don’t want others to profit from our images without permission
  • We don’t want others to alter our images

I think that’s fair, to want those things.  But is it realistic to expect those things once you publish your images in such an open, made-for-sharing, digital space?  Is it realistic to expect people who don’t care about, or understand, copyright law to abide by it?  We know how important it is to respect intellectual property and copyright and the work of others, right?

Do We Walk the Walk?

At the same time, I’ve heard photographers make all kinds of excuses for infringing on the copyrights of others.  I remember one bubbly, up-and-coming wedding and portrait photographer in Austin, going on about how she didn’t think there was anything wrong with using popular music on her website without permission.  “It’s not hurting anyone, and it gives the band more exposure (really?), and I’m going to do it anyway.”  Yup, that’s what she said.  Oh, but if anyone made that argument about using her images, for say, selling wedding planner services, I’m sure she’d have a problem with that.

Of course, I have to wonder what’s going on when some of the most popular photography gurus in the blogosphere get caught plagiarizing (I mean blatantly, and prolifically) on their blogs, or for using photos shot by other photographers on their commercial websites.  Big names, who really should know better, stealing photos, words, and the work of others to advance their brands and enterprises.  I’ve seen where these people lose followers, but not all of their followers.  It’s funny how forgiving people can be when they really admire someone.  Too bad for the not so pretty, not so cool, not so popular photographers who just want to “borrow” a couple of photos in a desperate attempt to earn some credibility and a little money.  They’re going to get flamed, threatened; basically, it’s public condemnation time for them.  There seems to be somewhat of a double standard.  If we’re going to complain about having our work used without permission, we should start by not tolerating the stealing of intellectual property from those within our own ranks, including from the industry leaders we look up to.

Who Are the Offenders, Really?

It’s very likely that some of these people who’ve been freely sharing every image they ever shot, without any concern for (or even an awareness of) copyright and usage issues, actually think there’s nothing wrong with grabbing photos, from anywhere, to illustrate their message:  “I’m a good photographer.  I can take photos like THIS.  Please hire me.”  One woman displayed an image of mine in her online gallery, with my name still on it!  I mean, maybe that’s what some of these people are doing, simply because they don’t know any better.  They assume the web is a free-for-all sharing platform; some huge, never-ending repository of digital assets that anyone should be able to take from, and give back to.

What I’d Like to Do About It

I don’t want to think people are THAT bad or THAT stupid.  I’d prefer to think that they’re just coming from a different place.  An uninformed place, but not an intentionally dishonest one.  So, I’m thinking someone should write up a simple-to-understand explanation of how this whole “You’re not supposed to use other photographers’ work without permission” thing works.  It should be posted up on some easy-to-find website, with an easy to remember domain name.  Maybe in more than one language.  Perhaps a link to this site should be sent to every newly discovered offender.  I’d feel better about doing that than participating in public shaming and mob retaliation.  But that’s just me.  It might not be realistic, but it certainly seems reasonable.

Still, I think there’s a place for calling out offenders who are actually aware of their misdeeds.  Sites like Photo Stealers do a very good job of this.  At the very least, talking and ranting about this helps spread some kind of awareness.

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You’re far too kind. People aren’t THAT bad or THAT stupid? I think they are. You’d prefer to think that they’re just coming from a different place? That’s a nice thought. What place would that be? A place of total ignorance? If so, they are THAT stupid. THey convince themselves it’s not wrong? If so, they are THAT stupid and THAT bad. They know what they’re doing when they do it and they don’t care. When it comes to their business, they are business-building sociopaths: They have no conscience about it. They’re only interested in advancing themselves in various ways and if stealing your pics or mine helps them do that, that’s what they’re going to do. If/When they get caught, they either PRETEND to be ignorant or they come up with some sort of justification that says, “I’m really not a thief. I didn’t intend any harm. And they’re right about that. They did not intend any harm because they don’t see things that help help themselves at the expense of others as being intentionally harmful… to themselves, that is. The only harm they give a shit about is harm to themselves. Harm to others? They could care less.

Ed Verosky

Like I said, I wouldn’t want to think the worst about most offenders. Doesn’t mean I usually don’t. The photo above (Stacie’s) BTW… I’m now hearing that it’s appearing on several different Groupon ads. So, now we have to wonder who the offending party actually is. Will someone claim ignorance or accident? Of course they will.


Try teaching middle schoolers, week after week, about copyright rules and laws. And then there are the teachers who don’t insist that their students follow copyright rules. As a technology teacher I bang my head against this wall on a daily basis. I’m tired and I don’t think we’re really getting anything changed.

Ed Verosky

@ChuckB: I’d think with middle schoolers, it’s a win just that they’ve heard of copyright rules and laws. The mindset about such things is really changing, because the way information is exchanged is changing. For most of these kids, when it becomes an important and relevant issue for them (when they get older), they’ll remember the teacher that said something about that. It will click at that point, when it counts, and they’ll have you to thank for it. So don’t feel this is a losing battle, it’s just a long lesson. :)


JimmyD nailed it in his comments above.

Over the years I’ve had my own work swiped and used for things like MySpace tags (remember those? :) ), newspapers, and advertisements. Specifically about the advertisements, in one case they even went so far as to use one of my images to promote an event that directly competed against what I do (so in effect I was competing against myself in this case), and since it was known to be one of my images, they were inferring that I was the one running it.

What I discovered in all the cases to be true is not only what JimmyD said above, but that the offenders didn’t care because they felt that the worst you’d do to them is make them take the image down. Even if you do get a successful takedown, they’ve still profited from the time the image was illegally used. They then move on to the next image and the cycle repeats.

The sad part is that in most cases the thieves are right! Most people won’t pursue the matter since the cost of litigation is so high, and even if you win in court, there’s no guarantee that they’ll pay up.

There are a lot of people that are crying out for patent and copyright reform. The problem is no matter how you rewrite the laws it won’t matter since there’ll always be dishonest people who’ll try to game the system and screw the “other guy” to get ahead. :/

rick cooper

I had a situation from a city that loaned out reproducible images to engineers, and such. Each image have a direct statement for in house only and not to be copied. However I did find three sets that I was aware of. I talk to our corporate lawyer about a law suit for 6.6 million per set. The problem was that the city would of tied it up in court till I was flat broke. Gave the city a good deal so I could make it up in the photo lab but instead I got it someplace else….

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