Someone Has Stolen My Photo, Here Is What I Did

Someone Has Stolen My Photo, Here Is What I Did

Today, I found that someone has stolen one of my photographs. Here is what I did.

I recently wrote an article about watermarks/signing/logos (I know there is a difference, but a lot of people call their logo in the bottom right a watermark, so I think we can agree it makes sense in this context), and the comments went a bit nuts. Loads of people worried that if you didn’t watermark/sign off your image, then it would be stolen and that there was nothing that you could do. I personally don't watermark my images.

Guess what?

My image got stolen, and the punch line to this article is that I have and will do absolutely nothing about it.

I don’t usually check for image theft, but someone in the comments posted a link showing how to find stolen images. To my surprise (ego dented) there were only 22 thefts, so I picked up the first one I could see and did a bit of a search. It turns out that rather nice looking hotel in Vietnam are using the below image to advertise their food menu. I really like this photograph, lots of autumnal colors and it was something that I created when I first started in food photography, it was taken as part of a test shoot with friends and I haven't ever made a penny from it.

How Did It Feel?

When I started out in photography this would have literally made my blood boil. “How dare they take my image!” However, I really couldn’t care less. I felt nothing, I found it interesting that I could quickly find the location of my image, but I don’t care that they are using it.

If this were supermarket using it on a billboard, I would be pretty happy as I called my agent to instruct a substantial invoice and most likely book a flight somewhere nice, but in this instance, who cares. A small hotel is using my image without paying and it looks like every image on their website isn’t paid for.

Could I invoice them? Sure. But it would be nightmare to get the money, so I am going to move on with my day. The best thing to come out of it is that I have some content for this week's article and hopefully a small point to make.

Why Don’t I Care?

This isn’t me saying that image theft is ok. Theft of anything is wrong. They have done wrong. Knowingly or by mistake, what they have done is wrong. The problem is, I am a self-employed individual with only an agent as support.  We do not have the time to be chasing these people over small sums of cash through enormous legal battles. The emotional energy and time to get what would be a £1,200 license for web use just isn’t worth chasing. With far less stress and probably less time I can make that money in a more positive manner.

My Mindset

For me it comes down to mindset. Writing for Fstoppers gives me a really interesting insight into the photography world outside of my bubble. I work as a commercial photographer shooting ad campaigns. My world is very insular, especially being a food photographer in Leicester UK. I try and keep things pretty positive and focus on doing what I do. I am very fortunate to be in a place where I love my job and that my life is pretty happy 90 percent of the time. Over the last year, I have noticed that a large proportion of photographers are angry, really angry. I can’t help but feel that this anger is misplaced. If we all took this anger towards people trying to price-cut us (I have an article on that to) and image theft, people taking our jobs using just iPhones, etc. and placed it into being truly creative in our work, I think we would all be a lot more successful and a lot more productive. For me, getting pissed at image theft at this level or any level just isn’t worth the energy. There are better things to spend my tears on.

When Would I Care?

So this isn't a one size fits all situation. There are times when I won't let this slide. If someone has been rude to me or if I know they have purposefully and aggressively tried to take advantage of me, I will retaliate, although not with anger and annoyance, just by handing the mess over to a collection team to act on my behalf. I then forget all about it. Every now and then, I get a random payment from one of them for money retrieved. It feels like free money.

If a major company took one of my images and used it for an ad campaign without license and refused to pay, I would care. Legal teams would potentially be instructed if disputed, and my agent would raise an invoice to reflect the usage which we would get paid for. I have done this in the past, and it certainly doesn’t make my blood boil; I usually get the money with an apology or a booking for another shoot, which I often assume is out of embarrassment, but I will take it anyway. I have also had clients misuse images without the correct license. This is almost always a mistake and instantly rectified. But sometimes, it just isn't worth worrying about. And even when it has been stolen, I try to expel as little anger or annoyance as possible as it simply wont help me progress toward my goals. 

What Is My Stance on Image Theft?

I know, I have waffled again. So, in a nutshell, here it is. Image theft is bad, and it is wrong. I wont be watermarking my images to stop it happening ,as it won't stop it (although I admit in this instance it would have as they appear too lazy to remove it), and it cheapens my work in the market I work in. If an art buyer or creative director looked at my images online and they had a watermark, I can guarantee you that they would not hire me.

I wont be getting angry when I next see my image stolen, which will happen. It just isn’t worth the effort. The person stealing it didn’t expend any emotional energy in doing so, so why should I add mine into the mix?

I try to stay calm and just get on with it. Life is full of bad people; don’t let them stop you from sharing your work or allow them to keep you in a state of anxiety and anger and the photography profession. The photography profession is here to stay; it is valued by those who need it and not by those who don't, much like every profession.

The people who stole my work in this instance have no intention of using anything but free images, I haven’t lost anything by them taking my image, my life continues and I am about to go and set up for a shoot and make some productive money and imagery.

What would you do in this instance?

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55 Comments

Previous comments
Scott Choucino's picture

yeah I think that's a pretty good approach. Chasing some small time blogger is completely pointless, but I know some photographers do.

Christine Deschaseaux's picture

Hi Scott,

I'm glad that, even after saying "I don't bother checking" you finally did so on www.imatag.com ;)

I totally understand your point about ignoring worthless infringers like Vietnamese hotels.
Your time and positive energy are the most valuable things (with your photos of course) in your equation. However monitoring your images online does not waste it, as the job is done while you do yours.

Furthermore, finding this amount of copies in such a short timeframe is a sign that many others are still to be found. My guess is that, in the following days or weeks you will find that IMATAG's bots have found more than just 20 uses of your images (they continue to crawl the web for you).

Who knows, maybe "a major company" DID use your work... we'll see !

Scott Choucino's picture

yeah I will try and remember to log in again in a few months. It wasn't an overly user friendly interface and I'm not 100% sure I have set it up right, but it will be interesting to see.

I agree with Scott Choucino that pursuing infringers located in Vietnam would not be feasible.

But what happens when your work is infringed (willfully) by a US-based entity?

The UK/EU and pretty much the rest of the world are signatories to the Berne Convention. Residents of these countries do not have to register their photographs with the US Copyright Office to have legal standing to pursue infringers in the US. Americans, on the other hand, MUST register to have access to their own courts.

However, without a timely registered copyright, international + US creatives are only eligible to receive actual damages, typically the licensing fee or lower, and the disgorgement of unlawful profits, if any(!). As a general rule, attorney fees will likely outstrip any settlement or judgement money the photographer receives, making it financially impractical to pursue US infringers.

Alternatively, a timely registered copyright grants both international and US photographers the right to pursue enhanced statutory damages from US$750 to US$30,000 and up to $US150,000 for willful actions, PLUS attorney fees and legal costs against infringers. If the photographer skips including any watermarks/logo, metadata, and/or other “Copyright Management Information” (CMI), the recovery damages could be as low as US$200 via “innocent infringement.”

With his timely registered copyright in-hand, Scott Choucino could contact a US copyright litigator to pursue this matter on a contingency. I know of at least three US copyright attorneys/litigators who accept infringement cases (notwithstanding Fair Uses) when the work is timely registered.

Scott Choucino could continue creating commercial imagery while his copyright litigator would leverage his timely registered copyright and push the infringer to settle out of court. In the US, very few copyright infringement actions proceed all the way to a trial verdict. If an infringer chooses not to settle (assuming the infringing use is not within the scope of Fair Use) and the plaintiff photographer prevails at trial, the infringer is now liable for the photographers attorney fees, costs, and up to US$150,000 in statutory damages. To mitigate their financial copyright infringement exposure and to forego negative news reporting and public social media shaming, infringers will want to settle (immediately) and put the matter behind them.

If Scott Choucino was to include CMI (watermark) on an image that a US-based infringer knowingly removed, covered up, or altered via Photoshop or another editing software to hide a copyright infringement or induce others to further infringe, he would have standing to pursue up to $US25,000 in statutory damages, legal costs, and other remedies at the court’s discretion. The good news is that a timely registered copyright is NOT required to pursue CMI violations. Many US attorneys will also take these CMI cases on contingency.

In short, if you choose not to timely register your photo copyright with the US Copyright Office, at the very least, affix them with one or more CMI to give your US attorney leverage when pursuing US-based infringers.

BONUS for timely registering your copyrights: Upon receiving your Certificate of Registration from the US Copyright Office, you’re granted “presumptive proof” (prima facie evidence) that you have a valid photo copyright, and that the facts stated in the copyright registration application will be deemed valid, unless disproven. With the US Copyright Office being officially part of the United States government, I have to believe that your granted Certificate of Registration could be used to help prove your photographic authorship, copyright ownership, and date when you created (registered) your photograph in Berne Convention countries that don’t have a formal copyright registration procedure.

Scott Choucino's picture

I think there is a big difference in UK and US law in these areas so I'm not 100% sure I could comment on any of this without doing a tonne of reading first. In the UK, you pretty much own the copyright when you press the shutter button.

Scott Choucino wrote: “In the UK, you pretty much own the copyright when you press the shutter button.”

That’s the same situation in the EU, US, Canada, Australia/NZ, Japan, and other Berne countries. Once you create an original photograph (i.e., independently created; was not copied from a third-party) and affixed on to a tangible medium (on to film, digital file, Polaroid), Berne and other laws grant the photographer author an immediate + automatic copyright.

The difference is how countries handle copyright infringement disputes.

In the US, to “enforce” your copyrights (to file suit and pursue money damages in federal court), the copyright MUST be registered to have legal standing. If your images were “timely” registered, either BEFORE the infringement begins OR within THREE-MONTHS of FIRST-publication, the plaintiff photographer is entitle to statutory damages AND potential recoupment of attorney fees vs. actual damages (typically low fees) and profits (if any!), as I previously wrote. Timely registering your copyrights with the USCO, provides your litigator with leverage to push US infringers to settle out of court (only a handful of US copyright disputes reach the trial level/verdict, as it’s too expensive to be in a prolonged and extended litigation action; pretty much all infringers choose to settle out of court to mitigate their financial exposure).

If an unregister work is exploited commercially or in a pricey media ad campaign, actual damages could exceed the maximum statutory damages of US$150K, making it very feasible to pursue US infringers without having a timely registered copyright--but that scenario is rare.

If you don’t care about money damages and simply just want a US-base entity to stop using an unlicensed photograph you own, you can use a free DMCA “take-down” notice to request the hosting/ISP to remove the image. However, if the infringer files a “counter-notice” (per Fair Use or other affirmative defenses), then you may have to file suit in the US court to get the image removed from the infringing site--this scenario is also rare, as most infringers don’t exercise their right to file a counter-notice.

SPECIAL NOTE: EU and other Berne countries are EXEMPT from having to file any formal copyright registrations when pursuing US-based infringers. However, they can only pursue actual damages (the licensing fee) and disgorgement of profits, if any. Both Berne and US creatives are not eligible to pursue attorney fees without a timely registered copyright, making it financially difficult to pursue American infringers.

Those who choose not to timely register their photo copyrights with the USCO, should, at the very least affix some CMI, as that will permit them to pursue up to US$25K + attorney fees + other remedies against the infringer who either removed, covered-up, or altered any CMI to hide or induce copyright infringements.

If your legal team is pursuing an infringer in the US, they’ll really need a timely registered copyright to be able to pursue any significant damages.

Scott Choucino: Your images are beautifully photographed and styled! Please re-consider registering them with the US Copyright Office (you can economically group-register up to 750 images in one one-line eCO Standard Application for US$55 total fee--it’s NOT US$55 per each image being registered).

Cheers.

Gentleman,
I am ok with no watermark but how will a potential client be able to contact me if he see only the picture...?

Scott Choucino's picture

I think that if a client needs your services they will either know you or be on your website. I don't think people find random images and decide to book a photographer. it is more likely that they are looking for a photographer and would therefor find your images via your website.

In the US, if they can't find you after conducting a diligent search, your work can be deemed "orphaned."

In my book, there are more advantages of affixing CMI than not. Read up on what I've written previously and see https://www.photoattorney.com/7-reasons-add-watermark-photos/

Robert Nurse's picture

Just for the sake of my own vanity, I'd be curious to see if any of my images were stolen. I doubt that any of them are. But, I might find it kind of cool if they were. I'd only be concerned if they were portraits of people who might take offense. How would one perform a search?

Joe Healey's picture

For a fee Image Rights is a service that will search for you. This is not an endorsement, just a note that I came across them while researching the same thing. Also, Google has a method however I am less familiar with that.

Joe Healey's picture

This site desperately needs a copyright attorney contributor. If your images have been stolen 22 times and you rarely seem to mind, why do even bother charging for your images?

Nicely said, Joe! There’s way too much incorrect or dated copyright information circulating the Internet. Some of the Fstoppers contributors/writers are based in the EU, and don’t really understand how US copyright law and its registration procedure function.

Getting a seasoned copyright litigator (US + EU) to chime in during these IP discussions would help Fstoppers photographers better understand their rights.

When I share a comment, I’ll often provide legal US citations and/or links to attorney-based blogs and videos to support my copyright advocacy.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yes I have no idea how US copyright law works. I have a small understanding of the UK law, but my agent and a legal team I work with deal with that side of things.

The UK is fairly litigious, but I don't believe it to be anywhere near the scale of the US, so that is worth noting with my opinion.

Andy Barnham's picture

While I appreciate being zen in regards to image theft as getting upset can also be very stressful, I disagree with this approach. If you, as the creator, don't care and don't fight to protect the value of your work (how can you value your work if you don't try and protect it?) then no one else will. And if no one stops the unscrupulous from infringing upon photography, then this will become normal behaviour from brands and companies. It's hard enough to try and educate clients in regards to copyright and licensing and turning a blind eye doesn't help. If you don't protect copyright and IP now, it becomes harder to in the future. I'm aware that it's very hard to enforce IP if infringed upon in a different country, let alone continent and that (as a generalisation) IP in Asia is very hard to protect but I disagree that doing nothing is an appropriate course of action.

Scott Choucino's picture

I value my work at the point of commission. The fee I charge my client and the license I sell them is where I value my work. This is in my control and a positive use of time and energy. Everything else is a sliding scale of how much effort I will put into it.

Scott Choucino: Curious, do you own the copyrights to all the posted images on your website or just some of them? Or is it WFH/employer-owned? Thanks.

Scott Choucino's picture

The images are all my own and my portfolio front page is mostly personal work My commercial portfolio is delivered in a different way, but assuming they were all on the same page, they would all be mine with various licensing agreements with clients.

David Pavlich's picture

For someone like me, a person that thinks a shot of mine is good enough to steal would be a sort of compliment. It wouldn't be worth my time and money to pursue damages. But for someone that makes a living from their work, it could very well be worth the investment.

Love or hate them, T&C had an interesting video about their work to get a company in Australia to stop using one of their images and were awarded damages. However, it took a LONG time and considerable capital to get it done.

Scott Choucino's picture

indeed, I just wonder if with all that time and money the photographer could have made the same profit and in a more productive and positive way.

Robert Nurse's picture

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Michael Glenn's picture

I was resigned to the same fate until I found a copyright lawyer that does the work for a contingency. Now I am free to spread my work and brand, and his team looks for infringments. He decides if its worth anything to go after them. I dont worry about it. When I make money, I make many times what the infringer would have paid if they licensed it properly. It has removed alot of stress.

Nobody stole(reappropriated) anything from you, they only came to "possess" it because you freely released it to the world, and their use of it, doesn't in anyway deprive you of your "possession."

Newly volunteered videographer/ photographer for local city, where this just became a “HOT” potato! Thank you for sharing your awesome thoughts on the subject! #TakeAPhoto