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.
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.