Social Media Giant Plays Judge, Jury, and Executioner, but They Punish the Photographers, not the Copyright Thieves

Social Media Giant Plays Judge, Jury, and Executioner, but They Punish the Photographers, not the Copyright Thieves

Photo-thieving criminal gangs and huge corporations profit from stealing our photographs. Let’s stand together and fight back.

It's Against the Law

Many years ago, someone I knew had downloaded a picture of mine, printed it, and put it in a frame in their house. That was the extent of the thefts that happened back then, and they were done through ignorance of the law. It was a minor issue for me, and a gentle explanation of why it wasn't acceptable followed. But now, it is criminal gangs, disreputable businesses, and adversarial foreign government agencies behind the wholesale theft of our photos.

Having our photos stolen and used without permission can be a felony. Thanks to the pressure from the big movie companies that rightly wanted to protect their intellectual property, the penalties for copyright theft are huge. Despite that, copyright theft is commonplace, and nobody is doing much about it.

Consequently, artists are finding it increasingly difficult to protect their work, especially so with globalization. Some countries’ disreputable regimes seem content to allow our work to be used by criminals operating in their own countries because it diverts revenue from us to their coffers. But it’s also corporate greed that enables that theft to happen.

The photo my acquaintance printed.

The Wholesale Theft of Images on Facebook

On Facebook, there are numerous pages with legitimate-sounding names that have thousands of followers. They routinely post stolen photos.

Recently, I saw a fabulous photo on my feed depicting a raven that appeared to be holding the sun in its beak. It appeared on an aggregate Facebook page called The Mind Circle that posted other people’s images on a nearly daily basis. I tracked down and spoke to the original photographer In British Columbia, Shelley Lewis. She told me how frustrated she was by the ongoing battle of stopping others from stealing her work in this way.

A screenshot of The Mind Circle's theft of Shelley's image.

I contacted Tran Tuan Viet, an incredible award-winning photographer based in Hanoi, Vietnam, whose work gets used by National Geographic and other major publishers after I saw his work on The Mind Circle Facebook page. Again, his photos had been used without permission:

Yes, so many photos of mine are used without my permission, included the article that you quoted.

Similarly, Nicola Di Tinto from Italy had his work stolen by The Mind Circle too.

I spent a day going through the photos appearing on the Mind Circle website and Facebook page and emailed several of the people whose photos appeared to have been stolen. They all confirmed that their photos were used without permission. In fact, I didn't find any single image on the site that had been used with the permission of its creator. So, I tried to track down the perpetrators.

Of course, those involved in criminal activity are unlikely to make their names known, and since new data protection laws have come into place, it’s harder to find out who they are. I traced The Mind Circle’s Facebook page back to their website’s server. The website was anonymously owned.

Another photo of mine that got used without permission.

It’s incredible to know that The Mind Circle has been operating on Facebook since 2014 posting plagiarized images, and yet Meta has done nothing about it. Why? The reason may well be because Facebook earns money from these popular posts. There are thousands of these aggregate sites and each has thousands of followers, which means Meta will be earning advertising revenue from advertising clicks. Similarly, the illegal website hosts cookies for Facebook, Google, and others.

Why do these Facebook pages exist? It seems they are there to drive traffic to their website, where they will get revenue from advertising. However, there is a more sinister side to it. By commenting on the posts and following the links to the site, you are sharing your data with them that could be used for nefarious means.

At best, sites like The Mind Circle are just spongers, freeloaders getting rich from other people's work. But, just like the VHS and DVD pirates of recent history, some of these types of sites will be run by criminal gangs involved in people trafficking, drug smuggling, child pornography, and slavery. Furthermore, they could be collecting your data on behalf of a hostile foreign government. Your data is a valuable asset that is worth harvesting.

I tried to tackle The Mind Circle by reporting it to Facebook and commenting on the stolen photos. What happened? With no explanation, Facebook blocked me from posting for a day, and the reach of my posts on the Meta sites plummeted. A coincidence? I don’t think so. It seems to me that Meta wants to bully people into not upsetting the bandwagon.

How to Spot Legitimate Sites

How can you tell whether such aggregate Facebook pagers are legitimate or not?

Let’s use the Fstoppers Facebook page as an example of a legitimate site. On Facebook, it posts links directly to its articles on the Fstoppers website. If that article features the work of a photographer, it doesn't just name that photographer but, wherever possible, links to their webpage as well. Permission is always sought. In that way, the photographer can receive a notification of that backlink to their site.

Conversely, illegitimate sites won’t ever link to the photographer’s website. They might only mention them by name in an attempt to make their post seem legitimate. They sometimes link to a social media account; in which case the photographer isn’t notified and so probably won’t find out about the theft.

Furthermore, a legitimate organization will have in-depth communication details on its Facebook page and website. It will be easy to see who owns the site and where they are based. So, check its About page (if there is one). If it lacks ownership or contact information other than a contact form, it probably cannot be trusted.

Next, go to and enter the URL there. This site is incredibly useful because it will usually show the server on which the site is hosted and the “abuse” address to which you can send copyright infringement and takedown notices.

The Fstoppers Facebook page links to articles, and where possible, hyperlinks to featured photographers websites are in the articles.

How to Fight Back Against the Thieves

Sadly, it’s very hard for anyone other than the victim of the crime to report it. So, if you see what you think is a stolen image on a Facebook page, you could Google search for the photographer and let them know and let them know how to report it.

If your photo has been stolen, then there are things you can do. But first, gathering evidence means visiting the thieves’ sites.

Before doing so, I ensure my computer has adequate protection against malicious websites; good quality anti-virus protection programs have facilities to protect you. I also use ad-blocking programs, Adblock Plus and Ghostery, although these can stop functionality and affect the revenue of genuine sites, so I whitelist those. I could just delete the cookies on my browser, but many of them are useful, keeping me logged into legitimate sites. So, I installed Spybot Search and Destroy, which does a first-class job of removing tracking cookies but leaves the useful ones if I choose to do so.

Taking Down the Stolen Photos

After I take the precautions shown above, I check the websites. It is important to gather as much evidence as possible, including screenshots and URLs.

Disreputable sites like The Mind Circle don’t have an About Us page that gives the name and details of the owners, reputable sites do. I then report the issue everywhere I can. In the USA you can report copyright theft to the US Department of Justice.  Sadly, I can’t report to them from the UK, which is a nuisance because most of the photos being stolen by these criminals belong to people outside the USA. Here in the UK, it is the Trading Standards Authority that deals with it. Local municipalities will often have their own reporting systems too.

It's relatively easy to find the server that hosts the site through You can send takedown notices to the host via their Abuse page.

However, if you notice your work has been stolen, you won't be alone. Do a bit of research and find other people’s work that has been used by the site too. Contact them and send coordinated complaints to the website host. The host may then take the entire site down. They are unlikely to with one complaint.

I recommend reporting them to the police too. The more people do this, the more it will show up on crime statistics and the more likely it will be to be addressed in the long-term.

Even if the crooks don’t backlink to you, you can set up Google Alerts to monitor when you are mentioned on the internet.

Yes! Some no-win, no-fee lawyers will take on these cases.

I have written in my terms and conditions that anyone who uses my images is agreeing to pay me £250,000 per image, unless otherwise previously agreed. If I can find out who it is that has infringed my copyright, then I send an invoice, and the stolen content soon disappears off the internet.

Is It Fair Use?

No doubt, somebody will cry that this is fair use of the images for them to share your images in this way. However, while using small bits of an original work is probably considered fair use, borrowing large portions isn’t. If the infringement uses the work’s heart, for example, your best images, even a small amount may weigh against a claim of fair use. Furthermore, if the criminals using the work harms the copyright owner's ability to profit from it, it is unlikely to be considered fair use.

Moreover, using your photographs directly isn’t transformative; it is unlikely to add new meaning to the original image. Therefore, it is only considered a copy of the original. Plus, if the image is used commercially, it is unlikely to be judged fair. Scraping users’ data is commercial use.

It’s Not Just on Facebook

There are regular news stories of photographers and artists who have had their work stolen. Besides the cheap tack it advertises, the Chinese-owned website Temu, with its HQ in the Dublin tax haven, sells goods with stolen designs.

Kelsi Trainor, an artist based in Melbourn, Australia, had her blanket designs plagiarised and sold on Temu.  She only found out when she saw someone at a festival wearing her design.

Another Australian artist, Tank, won a battle to have his copyrighted work removed from that site. Temu seems to be a breeding ground for plagiarism and copyright infringement.

From the perspective of the victims, Amazon also seems to make little effort to stop stolen works appearing on its marketplace. When shops selling plagiarised designs are taken down, they just start up again under a different name.

I’ve actually had this image sold as lawn flags on Amazon both .ca and .com it took me months to have the factory in China removed from that platform. They just kept relisting under a different name. - Shelley Lewis, regarding the corvid eating the sun photo mentoned above.

If We Work Together, We Can Win

When I’ve written about copyright theft before, it drew some defeatist attitudes stating that if we post stuff on the internet then we should accept that it will get stolen. I disagree. I believe that we should all start putting pressure on the police, our elected officials, the website hosts, and these huge companies to make it much easier to expunge the offenders. Thousands of people will read this article, and if we work together, we can help banish these criminals and pressure our law enforcement agencies to protect us better.

Encourage people to avoid low-quality websites like Temu that allow the sale of stolen designs, art, and photos.

Finally, put pressure on your elected officials to change the law so these platforms become vicariously liable for stolen artwork being advertised on their sites. Facebook wouldn't be so lax about hosting these thieves if they were fined for it.

Let’s start a movement to show that our photographic work has value and that we won’t tolerate it being stolen.

If you know anyone whose work has been stolen by The Mind Circle, please ask them to report it to Cloudflare's abuse page.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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I'm more worried if people don't want to steal my photos!

I'm surprised. You have a super gallery.

Thanks! My comment was a little facetious, I'm sure copyright theft is a big problem for some folks.

You really do; very good work!

Thank you!

'I could just delete the cookies on my browser, but many of them are useful, keeping me logged into legitimate sites.'

I use Firefox and just let it delete everything when I close the browser. Having to log in to sites every time I visit them is just a minor inconvenience

I use Firefox too, but there are multiple sites I log into every day, because I also build and maintain them. The process of logging in is time-wasting for me.

I don't know about PCs, probably the same, but on Mac you can use a finger print password shortcut button to simplify your task. Doesn't mean you have to use it for all sites, but it's probably safe enough for many.

Firefox does let you selectively delete cookies, and I'd be surprised if there isn't a plugin to simplify the process of deleting only unwanted cookies.

That is incorrect. In settings under privacy and security you can choose what cookies to keep to avoid having login issues. Also, you can choose what user name and password combinations to store.

That's exactly what I said.

My mistake. I read your comment incorrectly. Apologies

No worries; it happens sometimes.

Password managers that can auto fill login prompts will mitigate that headache.

I would caution people about which password managers they allow to do this; some are a bit leaky.

An important point about the often misunderstood fair use clause of U.S. copyright law. Fair use ONLY applies when critiquing or commenting on a copyrighted work. And, it is up to the copyright holder to allow the use. YouTuber Rick Beato falls directly in line with the fair use clause, but is routinely blocked by artists who have a very strict use policy.

But the big issue here is most artists don't register their work. It's not enough to claim copyright. You have to register it with your country's copyright system. ( in the U.S.)

The U.S. created a 'small claims' court for copyright issues that may alleviate some of the expense of a lawsuit.

In reality, it is my belief that if you post photos directly on social media, you are opening yourself up to rampant theft and illegal use of your images. You're probably best to create a website and provide links to your images. That seems like it would keep most of the scrapers from your site.

In this part of the world, there is no requirement to register work. Copyright is automatically given. I absolutely agree that theft of images happens when you post images on social media, but it's the platform's lack of interest in tackling it that's the problem. They should be made vicariously liable for hosting the stolen images. Thanks for the great comment.

Same in the US. Copyright is automatic. HOWEVER, from a practical point of view, registration is important. Without registration you are limited to actual damages, whereas registered images have a statutory value of $125,000. Also, it's hard to find a lawyer willing to take on a case involving unregistered photos.

At least in the US, DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) provides pretty generous safe-harbor protections for hosters. They do have to have a process for handling DMCA takedown filings from creators, but all the infringer has to do is say "no, I disagree" (unless the infringer or accuser is a major corporation, it seems) and the work can be displayed again and the creator has to sue the infringer (not the hoster.

Unless the infringer has deep(-ish) pockets, it will cost a small fortune (at least in the US) with little to no prospect of return, even if you win.

In 1974 I had my final project in a photography class stolen. It was images of downtown Seattle architecture (not the Space Needle). I was surprised and rather flattered. Mine was the only one stolen.

Ivor, have to considered forming an organization of artists that the one priority is copyright protections?