We Pirated Our Own Video and This Is What Happened

Piracy is a major issue among all types of creatives. Regardless of if you make handbags, design websites, create beautiful paintings, produce movies, or craft amazing photographs, at some point or another, someone is going to steal and rip off your work. Recently, we decided to run a social experiment; we actually pirated one of our own tutorials and put it online for free before it was even released to the public. What happened next was pretty interesting.

Back in winter of 2017, Fstoppers teamed up with Landscape Photographer Elia Locardi to produce the third installment in his Photographing the World series. While we were filming throughout Italy, Dubai, and North America, we came up with the idea of releasing a fake lesson and seeding it on torrent websites. The idea was sort of a "Rickroll" where Elia would teach what would appear to be a legit lesson. However, by the end of the video, Elia would acknowledge that this copy of the tutorial was in fact pirated and that the viewer had unfairly stolen the content from Elia himself. As we traveled from destination and country to country, we continued to brainstorm exactly what this fake lesson would look like and where we would film it. When Elia traveled to Charleston, South Carolina to film the final post-processing sections of Photographing the World 3, it became pretty clear where this final lesson would be filmed.

Elia's Photographing the World series has been one of the most successful photography educational tutorials we have ever produced. However, one of the biggest complaints people have (yet also one of the biggest praises about the series too) is that we travel to exotic locations that many photographers do not have access to themselves. Therefore, for this fake lesson, we thought it would be funny if instead of heading to Italy for the first lesson, we brought Italy to the viewer! The Fstoppers team packed up all our gear and headed to the most popular Italian location not in Italy: Olive Garden. 

Elia using a "parking lot lake" to create a beautiful reflection

We wound up filming an entire lesson outside the Olive Garden in North Charleston, South Carolina, and Elia did not hold anything back. Everything from scouting, to composition, to gear used, and even the local history was included in the lesson just as he does in his real, full-length tutorials. What starts off as a pretty serious exploration of an Italian restaurant quickly becomes more and more ridiculous as Elia is faced with billboards, urban distractions, traffic, employees, and other environmental elements found on location. Once the final images were captured, we then wanted Elia to take all of the photos into Photoshop just as he does normally and teach exactly how to edit and composite everything into one portfolio-worthy image. Let's just say that by the end of the post-production section of this lesson, it becomes abundantly clear that this is not a real lesson from Photographing the World 3. You can watch the full, unedited lesson on how to photograph an Olive Garden in the video below.

Once we created this fake lesson, we then had to seed it on a few torrent sites. In order to make the tutorial seem legit, we packaged it up with a bunch of fluff material so the entire download was 20-30 GB of data. The file structure was designed to look exactly like a normal copy of Photographing the World and the fake lesson was listed as lesson one. Once we uploaded the torrent files, we had a bunch of friends download it, seed it, and even leave positive comments to help promote the whole series to the top of the search results. After a few weeks of serving the fake files, we were shocked that people were actually downloading and resharing the tutorial as if it was the real thing. 

The Hypocrisy of Piracy

Dealing with piracy is nothing new for most photographers and videographers. If you have ever published an image or a video online, chances are someone somewhere has stolen your content and used it for free or even worse, has made money off your hard work without any credit or compensation. Fstoppers is a pretty small company with only three full-time employees. When we team up with professional photographers like Peter Hurley, Mike Kelley, Clay Cook, or Elia Locardi to produce our expansive photography tutorials, we are putting up all the money, taking all the financial risk, and hoping that our hard work will not only be appreciated but will also allow us to make enough money to make the whole experience worthwhile. There is a fine balance between giving back to the photography community we love so much and making enough money to make a living doing what we love. When you see your photography, graphic designs, or videography taken from you without your permission, it can be frustrating and sometimes outright discouraging. 

So what can we all do to combat piracy in our field? To be honest, there really isn't much anyone can do to completely discourage those who blatantly steal digital content, but there are steps you can take to protect yourself if an infringement does take place. In our latest tutorial, Making Real Money with Monte Isom, Monte discusses the importance of copyrighting your work (I've shared the free video of that below). By copyrighting your work with the US Copyright Office, you gain legal leverage in the event that you need to take someone to court for stealing or selling your work. Of course, here at Fstoppers, we copyright all of our videos and photography so that when we catch people stealing and reselling our work, we can prosecute them, but that process is often time-consuming and painful for those on the infringing side of the lawsuit. You can also simply not post any of your work online or cover all your work with obnoxious watermarks and copyright notices, but that almost always takes away from beautiful images and video you have spent so much time creating. 

In creating this fake video, we hoped that we could tackle the issue of piracy with humor. Of course, making one funny video that we seeded on a torrent site will never completely eliminate those who wish to steal from others, but hopefully it will make a lot of creatives in our own field stop and think about what they are doing. Every week, Fstoppers receives multiple emails from photographers who have had their images stolen from their websites and then used in advertisements, on Instagram, on other photographer's websites, and in all sorts of commercial applications. This problem is a real epidemic within the creative industry. However, in many cases, those creatives who are super upset that someone has stolen their own work are quick to download a free copy of Photoshop, a pirated series of their favorite television show, an artists' latest album, or even educational tutorials from some of the biggest names in the photography world. They do not even think twice about it, and that is extremely frustrating and hypocritical. 

So, in the end, while we have tried to bring the issue of piracy to the forefront by making a ridiculous yet humorous mockumentary of our own content, we hope we can persuade more people in our industry to do the right thing and pay for the content they enjoy just as they hope to get paid for their own content that they produce for their own clients.

Patrick Hall's picture

Patrick Hall is a founder of Fstoppers.com and a photographer based out of Charleston, South Carolina.

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I've been wanting to buy the video series, but I just don't have the cash right now. So I've been patiently waiting and saving away some money here and there. As a software developer, I'm very anti-piracy. I also think it will make the video that much more enjoyable when I do finally get it. Keep up the great work guys, and thanks for the behind-the-scenes videos too!

The guys over at SLR Lounge uses a subscription model. Software customers generally don't like subscriptions either, but there's a promise of recurring revenue for the software developer provided they can keep up with features.

I do wonder if the guys at FStoppers have considered a subscription model.

In general, I find that people think everything is easy to make. Look at gamers complaining about making changes in a game - they always think that it's super easy. One peek behind the scenes, and we can see how much work it is for the rank and file.

I think there's a similar expectation mismatch here. One peek at the BTS, and despite the goofy stuff, we can see how much work and effort is in the whole thing.

I'm in the same boat as you, Mike. There are so many tutorials that I'd like to watch.

I would pay for that I think, but I wonder how long I had to be member to pay down all their content then, must be a 5 year contract :P

I know all people have budgets, including me. I can't afford these tutorials either, except for maybe a couple. But then you have other people making 6-figures as a software developer, pro photographer, doctors, dentists, and they always seem to complain too that they cant afford things.

Ohh wonderful, this was such a great idea and way to showcase the issues at hand!

This is genius!!!!.. And I totally get it... I have suffer from piracy... whether its my tutorial or photos. There is no excuse.

Annie Leibovitz's MasterClass is online on YouTube and so far MasterClass has not been able to remove it for whatever reason. I would assume they have some resources to tackle the problem, more than us.

If they copyrighted the tutorial, they just have to send Youtube a remove notice otherwise Youtube is in violation of copyright law. If they did not copyright it, then it's much harder to get Youtube to act on it in a timely manner.

Youtube has tons of music videos and audio tracks. I mean, those are for sure trademarked how can they post it and keep it on Youtube?

You are right, a quick search and I found the Master Class on Youtube? Boy, these guys are fast, whoever these guys are.

I mean, there are a lot of good tips in there for amateurs at least... Lol

Oh man, you had me at "...rolled out the never ending past bowl..." and "...but this is just.. Honda Civic...", OMG, I was rolling - sooo good!

Btw, do people really line up at the Olive Garden so much that there's a wait time?!?!

I think they have half off bottles of wine during happy hour so that's why everyone was there

Yeah, for some alcohol is enough reason. The food there is so so, used to be better.

Plus the Italian food that is actually better than Italy’s ;)

If there is one thing I learned from the photographing the world series is that Italian food in Italy is not very good..

But please don't take our word for it. There is nothing I want more than for people to doubt us and then share our experience first hand. I actually doubted Lee the first time he came back home and said his authentic Italian food experience was horrible. He's been 3 times now and I've been 2 times and I have to agree with him. That being said, I've heard the northern region is much better than the central and coastal regions.

I've seen your BTS in Italy and I have to say it seemed all really strange because the Costiera Amalfitana is famous for the delicious food, my guess is that you were there in the off season so the best restaurants were closed due to the lack of tourists as Italian people prefer to eat at home rather than go to a restaurant, especially in the small towns. Anyway if you will ever come back to Italy (in the north preferably) consider yourself my guests. It's a matter of national honor for me :)

RE food in Northern Italy: I'm not a foodie, but when I was there long ago, their idea of a pre-dinner salad was PASTA. I said, Bring it!!! Liked the north way better for tons of reasons.

Not again dude...

Aw! The O.G. is EVERYONE'S secret dining vice! No one claims to LIKE it, but they all go there for the modest prices and the Italian comfort food.

Brilliant! That was so funny to watch.

Anyone contemplating on buying these, I highly recommend them. If buying all three is tough. Do just buy the first one at least.

Clever. If I go to an Olive Garden and watch the video while eating a Never Ending Pasta Bowl do you think I will achieve transcendental consciousness?

That's such a great idea! Now I have to watch that fake tutorial. :D

I have to say I've found a way to avoid my pictures being stolen, and it's very effective, I just take shitty pictures so no one wants them and no one steals them. Problem solved :)

This is so funny. I watched this yesterday in the bus. I had to laugh so much. The best was definitely the masking haha 8=o Great job! I hope to see a lot more of tutorials with Elia.

This is awesome! 😂😂

HAHA! It's funny because I'm thinking about download that joke video and rofl.

Too funny guys-keep on innovating!

The video is hilarious, especially when watching it while inebriated ;)

Priceless!! I don't know how Elia was able to keep a stright face while filming this. Well done sir, well done!

I switched over to Format for my website since they do offer a way to prevent someone from stealing your photo. If someone tries to right click on my photo, you immediately get "This photo is copyrighted..." Would this be enough to stop the person from stealing my photo?

No not at all. You can just print screen and copy it into photoshop. Or I'm sure you can look at the dev code and find the reference to the actual uploaded image. There is no way to prevent people from stealing your work but you can copyright it, track it, and then offer them a settlement in place of taking them to court for copyright infringement.

that sounds so time consuming...

I really want the real tutorial but can't afford it. But I would NOT sink so low and go pirate it, it's other creators work - just like my own photography! What the F* fellow photographers?!? .. You're complaining about copyright and watermarking your images, but on the other hand you're torrenting tutorials and then complain about it?? I don't know what to say anymore...

That was the best lesson I have ever seen. Does Olive Garden want to use that in their advertisement?

Lee, what are you doing, brah? You're a good lookin' dude. Own it. Come to the bald side. #lotsofsunscreen

Either that or get all "Silence of the Lambs" on Patrick's Chia-shag?!

(Great vid, guys. Funny stuff.)

So, it's another time when someone took Elia's image of sky over the Rome and composited it illegally to... Oh, wait! ;D Anyway - glad you all have such distance and can approach those difficult situation with humor. Hearing Elia shouting "fuck you" and drawing a giant dick on the screen made my day ;)

It was in response to a few different drivers yelling at us "fuck her in the pussy" haha. We edited that clip out but it was pretty funny to hear that in real life

Now I wonder: why those drivers were yelling that. I'm intrigued! :D (Probably it's just because they're dickheads, but still... And I know - that was an unfounded moral judgement, but it still can be true. ;)

Some shit goes viral for the very wrong reasons... ;)

I just found a 10 min video of this happening over and over again

Guess some people take freedom of speech to literally. And mix it with trolling and sexism, too.

Ha! The joke is on Elia because I shoot a lot of ugly suburban restaurants and I learned a ton from his video. The reflection in a puddle trick is worth it all by itself.
You guys outsmarted yourselves with this one.

Elia's Photographing the World series... where are all the baseball photos?

Excellent and hilarious. I bought PTW 1 & 2 and watched all the BTS videos. Definitely one of the best tutorials I have used and the BTS stuff is great.

One thing that I took away from the PTW and BTS is how much work it entailed. You guys worked your asses off and legitimately suffered to deliver a quality product. The idea that someone would steal that is very aggravating and I hope there is such a thing as karma. I also sincerely hope that effing tool who stole your camera got hit by a tourist bus shortly thereafter.

Great stuff, many thanks to Elia, Naomi, Patrick and Lee for taking the time and effort. Well done.

I totally understand the idea behind this, and that it was a way to try and fool people with a fake torrent to find out what the reaction would be, but when the creator themselves are okaying the torrent, you can't really say that people have downloaded it illegally can you ?

I know it's a grey area, and as I said I understand the whole idea behind it, but when you look at the whole scenario downloading a torrent the content creators themselves have released is not really illegal ?

Sure we can because 1) we never sold the content in the fake torrent and 2) we never copyrighted it and are going after infringers. It's just free content we put online. I wouldn't call downloading the fake torrent with a fake lesson and a bunch of garbage files "illegal". However, downloading anything in our store is illegal.

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