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Sweet, Sweet Justice: How a Stolen Photo Cost the Thief $60,000

It's no secret that photographers often have to deal with people stealing their photos and showing little respect for the hard work that goes into creating a quality image. So, it's always nice to see when a bit of justice is handed out and the photographer's rights are upheld.

Coming to you from Tony and Chelsea Northrup, this video details their recent copyright infringement case, in which a company in Australia took one of their photos and used it on an iPhone case, of which 10,000 were made. The lawsuit is especially interesting as it involved international litigation, while a number of the Northrups' followers helped by sending them pictures of the phone case still for sale after the company claimed it had pulled it off the market. Nonetheless, the process and outcome weren't all sunshine and rainbows: the Northrups endured quite a lengthy battle that cost a fair chunk of time and money lost to legal fees, something any photographer has to factor in when weighing the potential settlement against the time, effort, and cost required to initiate such proceedings. Nonetheless, it's certainly always nice to see a bit of justice achieved in the fight to protect the rights of photographers. 

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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I wonder what thought processes lead people to believe that a photograph can be downloaded for free and then used in a for-profit enterprise. You have to be either stupid or just plain dishonest.

Ask Netflix, they seem to do it without any problem. The issue is that when it involves a person or a small enterprise it seems to be illegal. when a big company does it it seems to be legally and morally OK. Anyone sued Netflix for their theft? Not that I know of. In fact, many here think the law suite against Netflix has no merit. Sad.

It's also sad to see how little you get from a law suite. After almost two years of stress receiving $7.500 is really a joke.

I am not that popular that people will steal my photos (than again, I never checked :-)).Good to know someone there goes after the big guys!

It is just plain dishonest. That's the thought process.

Probably could have had a second suit for the use of Chelsea's likeness as well as upped the settlement because the lawyers/company lied about removing the items from the shelves.

People often complain about the cost of registering a copyright in the US but the added benefit of statutory damages is well worth it if the infringement occurs within the US. The simple fact that the cases were still for sale after the company/lawyer claimed they were pulled and going to be destroyed points directly to "willful" infringement. They also may have gotten their legal fees covered.

Registering copyrighted work is not expense. Many photographers are just lazy and don't know the ins and outs of proper CR filing.

I know it's not actually expensive but if you look back at the articles here, and elsewhere, concerning the fee changes that recently happened you will see a lot of photographers complaining about the cost as well as the need to file at all. Lots of "It's gonna cost me a fortune to register all my photos" and "Other countries don't require registration". They ignore 2 simple points.

1: You don't need to register every photo you take. There is absolutely zero reason to put every photo online. If it's not online, it's incredibly hard to steal. Only put your best work out there and register those. If you are a professional photographer, figure the cost of registering photos you deliver to clients into your rates. If someone does steal a photo of you/your kid/spouse from an Instagram post and uses it commercially, you're better off suing for violation of likeness rights than copyright. There isn't a cap as in a copyright case. Avril Nolan, IIRC, received 6 figures from the state of NY.

2: While other countries don't require you to register a copyright they also don't provide statutory damages. You need to prove the value of the stolen work. This can be seen here in the case of the Northrups. Had their registered image been used by a US company they would have fared better than $7500.

It is good to see justice prevail, but just because you win a lawsuit doesn't mean you get any money. Many times, the person who loses never pays the fine.

I knew a photographer who sued for illegal use of a photo and won, but was never paid. He sued again to get that payment, and won, but still wasn't paid. After suing, winning and not getting paid for a third time, he gave up. He had spent thousands on legal fees, and countless hours dedicated to the cases, with nothing to show.

It should be law that if you don't pay a fine, that you go to jail.

It's almost impossible for a small business owner to have the time or money to bring a lawsuit, especially with no guarantee of payment if you win.

The size and value of the offending party will often dictate if it is worth suing in the first place. A small company that can fold tomorrow, and whose principals are shielded personally by by incorporation, is usually a losing bet. They'll simply close shop and start over under a new name. A business owner that isn't legally incorporated(sole proprietor) will get stuck with a lien against all further income until the debt is settled, though that can take years. Lastly, a huge corporation like WalMart or McDonalds can't simply start over so likelihood of receiving compensation is far better.

I don't think that $7500 is a small sum but I respect that you two pursued the offending party. Take satisfaction in the fact that you cost them $60K and you also encourage others to protect their Intellectual Property. Perhaps someone will think twice before stealing from another photographer or at least go about licensing in the right way.

Best video I've seen all year