Insect Photographer Seeks $2.7 Million for Copyright Violations from Pest Control Company

Insect Photographer Seeks $2.7 Million for Copyright Violations from Pest Control Company

If you've wondered why registering your image copyrights is a good thing, here's a case for you. Insect photographer Alex Wild is seeking $2.7 million in an image-use case in which a pest control company used 18 of his images without permission and refused to take them down.

In order to complete my undergraduate degree in biology about eight years ago, I was working on an honors thesis studying the mutualistic relationship of a neo-tropical ant, Azteca spp., and its host plant, Cecropia spp. For the project, under the guidance of my advisor, I brought back some ants and some leaves from the trees that I had collected while studying in Costa Rica. To double-check my ant identifications I had made in the field, we sent off my samples to a guy she knew in Illinois, who also ended up doing some DNA sequencing work on them.

That guy’s name? Alex Wild. In addition to being a biologist, he also happened to be an insect photographer, which I thought was really cool, since I was just starting to solidify my plans to enter the photography world myself.

Fast-forward eight years, and learn about this copyright infringement case involving an insect photographer. His name? Alex Wild.

Wild has a stunning portfolio of insect images, so I’m not surprised he has image use issues and copyright violations regularly. He even tries to make it easy on people by having a licensing page on his website detailing different types of use and fees. Apparently, this case got to be a little much, and he’s taken action on it. A pest control company, Solutions Pest and Lawn, was caught using 18 images out of Wild’s portfolio without permission or licensing, so he is seeking statutory damages of $150,000 per infringement, which is the maximum allowed for images registered with the copyright office under U.S. federal law.

Due to the number of infringements involved, instead of sending his typical cease-and-desist letters, he had his lawyers go ahead and send settlement letters, which were initially ignored. He did eventually get a response from the company stating that it was a mistake and they were working on getting them removed; but months later, he noticed another eight images were used without permission, and the original infringed images were still up, hence the formal legal action.

One of the infringed images of a Technomyrmex difficilis ant, carrying a pupa. Image by Alex Wild.

In a brief statement from Wild, he says that this isn’t all that uncommon:

I cannot comment publicly about this particular infringement case, but I will say this is the largest of several lawsuits I've filed recently. These typically do not proceed to filing unless the infringing company repeatedly fails to respond after being made aware of the problem. In some of the more incredible cases, including this one, the infringer not only does not respond but continues to upload new infringing copies. It's maddening how often this happens.

As previously reported on Fstoppers, the methods for registering copyrights in the U.S. will be changing on February 20th. If you haven’t registered images by then, it’s about to get a lot more expensive, but by registering them, you can get larger settlements in court if your images’ rights are infringed upon. It’s something worth looking into.

Images are copyrighted and used with permission of Alex Wild.

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30 Comments

Campbell Sinclair's picture

I hope he wins. The company could be forced into paying hundreds of thousands in fines rather than do it properly and actually buy them for commercial use for far less. Stealing photographers work has become common practice and copyright needs to be enforced. Im looking at you Getty as well.

Why doesn't Alex just put one or more large watermarks across his portfolio images if this is recurring problem? I know it doesn't look so pretty, but would that really stop someone from wanting to buy one if they were sincerely looking to do so?

Johnny Rico's picture

Shouldn't have to.

Wayne Denny's picture

Using giant watermarks would be an incredibly stupid business decision, while also having the added benefit of making his work look terrible. He's suing for 150k for each stolen image. Even if he settled for 1/18th of that, he just made 150k for not covering it in a watermark.

Campbell Sinclair's picture

we have to in Aus in equestrian eventing , teen girls screen shot their eventing photos from your website and post them on instagram and its way harder to track than FB.

Nothing at all wrong with a watermark done well.

Watermarking keeps honest people honest and it illustrates willful intent on the infringers part in removing them.

Brandon Vogts's picture

Is it a retail store's fault that someone shoplifts from them? I mean, all those products are just sitting there on the shelves beckoning to be taken out of the store.

Matt Pluz's picture

Get em Alex!!!

Good for him, and I also hope he wins.

Dallas Dahms's picture

What I find most alarming in this story is the end bit about having to register your images with a copyright office and pay for the privilege of this protection. How much does it cost and where does the money go to?

Cost is $55 for up to 750 images. I can only assume that the money goes towards storage medium(hard drive space) and maintenance of the system. If you've ever built/bought a home server to store your photos, you know expensive it can be. Now imagine millions of individuals and companies uploading copyright images...them some big servers.

Dallas Dahms's picture

Thanks for the info.

However if you're about to sue someone go ahead and get a separate copyright for each image they used. Then you can hit 'em with multiple copyright violations instead of one copyright violation for multiple images.

Covered under the new law (effective 20th Feb 2018). Images registered as a group get individual protection. Also, the 750 image limit is only effective on said date.

For the next five days inclusively, one can register any number of related images —same time period, same subject, same event, same project, etc— shot by one photographer, as a group for US$55, but they do not get individual protection. On and after the 20th, it is up to 750 related images, even when shot by multiple photographers, if their is only one copyright owner. (Second shooter, work-for-hire, etc.).

"Covered under the new law...Images registered as a group get individual protection"

I was going to post the same reply before seeing yours. If you actually break it down, it is cheaper to obtain "individual protection" under the new registration system. To register 750 works individually, under the current system, would cost over $25K.

Jen C's picture

AFAIK, that's unnecessary. If you batch-copyright images, they're still individually protected.

Not until 20th Feb 2018. Before then, they are protected as “a work”.

This means, that if you batch process 1550 images now, and pay US$55, and someone uses ten of those images on their website front page, they have violated one of your copyrighted works, and you can sue for up to US$150,000 total.

With the new ruling, you would have to pay US$165, ($55 for the first and second 750 images, and yet another $55 for the last 50 images), and if they use ten of those images, (even if all ten are from the first batch only), you can sue for US$1,500,000 total, because they have now violated ten of your copyrighted works.

So even though the cost would be higher, would you recommend waiting to start registering, oh, say, the past 8 years of work until after the 20th to get the new protections, even though it will be a lot more expensive?

If you have eight years of work that is not protected, I'd say, start working on it now.

Remember, a collection has to be related, (by date, by client, by subject, by project, etc.), you cannot mix published and unpublished work together, and, I am not certain of this, but must be in the same calendar year. If I am right about the last bit, then eight years of work can cost you as little as $440, If you group them simply by year. More if you have both published and unpublished works, even more if you group them differently.

Also, how much work do you want to protect from each year? A hobbyist may have only a few hundred images he may have to protect per year. It may be better to wait the five days.

Still, may be cheaper IF you want protection from theft. For the published works, if it has been over three months since they have been published, you may not be able to sue for the maximum amount for work that has been already used, so it may not necessarily be worth it.

The question is not how much will it cost, but ① what is the potential return on investment, and ② what can you afford. The second answer may have some scrambling to get it done before the 20th, but if there are currently 30 images in violation for each year, from two or three violators, one may want to wait.

That being said, IF you are an event photographer who shoots 1,000+ images per event, (Let's put a number on that… 3,568), it is really not hard to include the US$275 in your COGS when figuring out your pricing for covering the event. Any event where you are walking away with 3,568 keepers, ought to be charged in the thousands of dollars range, and there is no excuse —well, no financial excuse— not to protect them after every event. Most photographers I know, used to submit once a quarter (to cover that three months window), and that would be all for US$55-$110 for the lot.

The new system would make it more expensive, but not prohibitively so, since any photographer shooting at that volume, ought to be making more than enough to cover their costs. Any photographer not shooting at that volume, can probably still file every quarter at $55-$100 per quarter.

So, how many photographers out there have say, eight years of unprotected works numbering over 6,000 keeper images (over 750 per year) which they would like to register today? Comment below, and explain why you let eight or more years go by for thousands of great images.

Well, though there's no need to defend myself, the reason I haven't done it is the same as most people -- it seemed complicated and I haven't had the time. I churn out a large volume of work, especially with shooting lots of events, so it's a daunting task. I'm just trying to figure out if I should scramble to get it done by the 20th or just wait.

The main problem for me is published vs unpublished works. I have no earthly idea which images of mine have been "published" or not. If we expand the idea to include works delivered to clients as "published," it becomes easier, but it's still not easy. I'm tempted to register all of it as "published," as that would be easiest, but I'm not sure what the rules are on that.

If I exported all of my work delivered to clients from the past 8 years it would be tens of thousands of images. Maybe I should just go through and hit the highlights and stuff that's most likely to be infringed, then be more diligent about it moving forward?

«Maybe I should just go through and hit the highlights and stuff that's most likely to be infringed, then be more diligent about it moving forward?»

That sounds like a plan. Going forward, since there will be a 750 limit anyway, it is probably a good idea to file at the end of every event, or at the end of every week, or possibly, to block time off at the end of every months.

Waiting for the end of quarter is not saving much on money, and you don't want to miss that three months window. Just remember, to keep your annual budget the same, raise your prices to include an additional $100-$300 dollars per event, for the registration costs, (you do not have to tell clients why, just that your prices have gone up), in addition to the usual COLI.

Portrait photographers can raise their prices by an additional $55 dollars per session, (I doubt they will be shooting 750 images for one portrait session), if they intend on batch filling per client, or less, if they intend to file at the end of the month/quarter.

Photographers who sell there landscapes in limited edition prints of 200 or fewer, signed and numbered, can raise the price by 50¢ and still be covered (and then some). Peter Lik can keep his prices the same. ;-)

The problem is with events. Most event photographers where I am don't charge more than $200/hour, and most of them charge less. I'm at the $175-200/hr scale right now, so raising prices is iffy if I want to stay competitive. I just edited an all-day corporate event where I turned in over 1000 images, so for that one event alone it would be over $100 -- doesn't seem like a lot, but it sure can add up quickly. Say it's an 8 hour event, which would be $1400 at $175/hr. Take away $100 of that, and you're taking 7% of the profits. Not insignificant. Blargh!

I guess it's an insurance if something gets infringed though.

How many hours did you shoot to turn in 1,000 images? If you shot for two hours, that is $55 per hour more. If you shot for four hours, that is $26 per hour more. If you shoot three to four events per month, and file per month, that is even less.

If you have been shooting events for years, you should be charging more than the average in your area. Sure, most companies are cheap and will do the army thing; “First rule: remember that your weapon was built by the lowest bidder!” But if you differentiate yourself, with years of experience, the companies which care about their image, will pay for a quality photographer.

But I understand that every market is different, and raising your price may price yourself out of the market. the thing is, without raising your price, you may be leaving the “gainfully (self) employed” status to simply “employed.” Not much sense in sitting there. This is what the $1,000 wedding photographers are learning the hard way.

I definitely charge more than the average photographer here in Arkansas -- as I said, I'm on the top end. I turn down so many events due to budgets. But even clients like Walmart, the largest company in the world, who I do a lot of work for, price shop and I get underbid a lot. Raising them by too much isn't a great option for me, but I'll just have to explore my options more I guess. Appreciate the feedback.

Dallas Dahms , just to be clear, the registration of the copyright is only required to claim more than just reasonable licensing fees in the USofA. If you want to sue for damages to reputation, willful theft, and/or attorney fees, (in the US,) you have to file for copyright status within one months of the violation, and within three months of publishing a work.

Outside the US, these costs may be recovered without a filing. In the US, reasonable licensing fees may be recovered without registering.

Dallas Dahms's picture

Well, none of it really applies to me since I am not American. Just curious though.

In the preceding discussion about event photographers and the costs of registering copyright for all images they shoot, I really don't think this is necessary. I shoot a fair number of events and once I am done I upload them to the cloud for the client to do whatever they want with. After that if they appear in other places it doesn't bother me. I got paid to take them. I don't expect them to produce any other income beyond that.

Non-editorial works though is another matter, but then I would be careful as to where I am uploading (publishing) them so that I can minimise the potential of theft. If I was only going to be making prints for resale in a gallery of a certain shot I certainly wouldn't put it on my website.

Leigh Miller's picture

We need more of this as a collective industry....some sort of fund to help photography professionals who have their work appropriated/stolen

What a great photographer, i'd take in one of his workshops.

Seems pretty cut and dry. The company should be begging to settle the case before it goes to court if they know what's good for them.

When the pest control controllers become the pests.