Interesting Photography Perspective: “Let Them Steal”

Interesting Photography Perspective: “Let Them Steal”

Photographer David duChemin posted a pretty provocative rant on his blog yesterday. This rant needs a warning, though: COPYRIGHT LAWS MATTER, and SOMETIMES YOU NEED TO FIGHT FOR UNFAIR USAGE OF YOUR IMAGES.

That being said, this isn’t an opinion that is going to be agreed with by everyone. Some are going to support it, and some are going to hate it.

“People are going to steal your work. They always have. They always will…But when that anger forces you to engage in a battle that consumes your creative energy, it can destroy the creative flow you’ve worked so hard to achieve. Win the battle, lose the war.”

This isn’t to say that stealing is OK. STEALING IS NOT OK. But we live in a new world of information. Marshall McLuhan knew it 45 years ago when he was developing the concept of the ‘global village’ – quite a while before the internet was even a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye. Anyone who expects to stay relevant can’t hinge their lives on how things used to be. Was it better back then? Maybe. But for better or for worse, it isn’t returning to that methodology anytime soon. As the world evolves, things change. Bitching about it wastes the energy you should be using to create.

“To be an artist means you create something and put it into the world. The rest is out of your hands. It will be experienced by people you never anticipated. It will be adored and reviled, which is better than simply being ignored. It will be criticized. It will be interpreted in ways you never intended. And it will be stolen.”

Although if you’re the type of person that would rather chase down a couple of individual violators and complain about Tumblr ruining you, then by all means, don’t stop. Chances are that you might be angry at something else all together…

“For most of us, our problem is not that people are stealing our work but that too few people are seeing it.”

When you fight over change, you’re loosing the battle for dollars.

“So let them steal. Hell, make it easy for them to steal. Put a tasteful watermark on your work so people can find you and then throw it into the wind and hope to God that someone with a larger audience than you puts it on Pinterest. Let people use it when they ask, and when it feels right let them do it for free.”

Free? FREE??? Believe it or not, it is occasionally appropriate. We all want to get paid, unquestionably. But 'FREE' is how pretty much every single one of us has gotten our foot in some door. No one gets paid the first time they pick up a camera. We have to earn our place. We have to earn our way into being indispensible. That’s when we have to ask ourselves, “Am I indispensible?” If the answer is no, then maybe we should take some of our vile hatred for Instagram’s copyright laws and channel it into creative fuel... or just not use Instagram.

“Time and again I’ve seen people thrive when they believe in abundance, generosity, and picking their battles very, very carefully. And I’ve seen people consumed, bound, and floundering when they’ve embraced the opposite…But experience suggests to me that the ones that are most consumed by this stuff are the ones that can’t afford to be. I’ll worry about theft if, God help me, I become complacent and resting on my laurels and my past work is my best, and most valuable, asset. In the meantime I’ll spend my energy doing what I love: creating my work and sharing it.”

What you decide, is up to you.

Via David duChemin

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Corey Ann's picture

Maybe this is good advice for non-professional photographers but as a photographer that actually earns their living with my camera, this idea is a joke. I can't create images if I'm angry? That's funny. If that were true I'd never make it through a wedding.

I actually allow companies to use my image with credit but stealing my images and presenting them as their own is a whole different ballgame.

Waleed Alzuhair's picture

I'm from Saudi Arabia, and we don't have any implemented law that can protect photographers from theft. There is no entity I can register with, or register my work. You can protect yourself with a good contract, and watermark your low-res online published work.

Some choose to do that, but I decided not to.. I do use a solid contract & sell full-use, non-transferable rights to my clients. If they void the contract, I can take action. However, when I post photos online, I use high-res without watermarks & license them under Creative Commons.

My day job pays my bills, photography won't.. This is something I realized a few years back, and lived with :)

Tobias Solem's picture

Sounds pretty sucky man. I'd rather live in a country where I can pay the bills with my photography. Which I do. Thanks for protection against theft.

Waleed Alzuhair's picture

You know what they say: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade, use the skin to make lemon cake, and the seeds to plant lemon trees :)

Tobias Solem's picture

Sure, or move to somewhere where life gives you lemon cake and has ample amount of lemon trees if that's your thing.

Waleed Alzuhair's picture

Thanks for the thought, Tobias.. Much appreciated ;)

ajmills's picture

I understand that it can be seen advertising (if the image can be traced back to you via credits and/or watermarks, etc.), which is fine up to a point - and as long as the watermarks stay intact as they are often cropped out/removed.

However, I would consider how the image(s) have been used before I deciding what to do. For example, I've recently had at least 3 newspapers here in the UK use 3 of my photos both in print and online without my permission. As they have used the photos to help sell papers/make them money, I will be invoicing them accordingly.

Mbutu Namubu's picture

David Duchemin is making a very valid point and photographers should pay attention to him. Also, it's good that he mentioned McLuhan because media theory is the key to understanding how electronic media responds to copyright laws.

My experience is that the question isn't a matter of whether or not to let people "steal", but to know when to let them steal and when NOT to let them steal. Knowing the answer to the question of "when" is the same as knowing the difference piracy and sharing. Media theory is helpful for discerning the qualities contained by mediums that allow them to be effectively governed by rational standards. According to McLuhan, electronic mediums (the internet, youtube, facebook, digital imaging, radio etc) are always non-linear/decentralizing and this quality makes them social as opposed to logical. To the contrary, mechanical mediums (traditional print media, books, magazines, billboards etc) are linear/centrally-controlled which makes them logical as opposed to social. The traditional Western system of copyright protection was built for the linear/centrally controlled mechanical mediums like print media that dominated during the previous era of mass industrial production. A problem occurs when laws and standards designed for mechanical mediums are applied to electronic mediums. The very linear/logical/central-control qualities that makes copyright law possible don't exist for electronic mediums.

What does all of that mean for photographers? It means that copyright protection will only work for traditional print media and is totally useless for digital media. So, a photographer can rely on legal protections if his images are used without his permission in traditional print media. But, he CANNOT rely on legal protections if his images are used without his permission in digital media. The bottom line is that what is considered stealing or piracy in a mechanical medium is simply sharing in an electronic medium. The difference has to do with the linear/nonlinear qualities of the mediums themselves that allow for effective use of copyright protection or not.

I understand that a lot of photographers are going to be disturbed by what I've just written. However, this is a good time to start thinking soberly about the true implications of the digital era on copyright. There simply is no theoretical way to maintain copyright in any non-mechanical medium.

Mike Kelley's picture

Great, great post and insight, thanks for sharing!

Mbutu Namubu's picture

Thanks Mike

Mike Kelley's picture

Excellent article and I more or less agree on all counts. Choose your battles...going after some blog or facebook user who lifts my images is something I'm not going to care about or waste my time on. Going after a multinational company who lifts my images to use them on a billboard is something I WILL go after. Sharing within the photo community is nothing to get worked up over, sorry.

Antonio Carrasco's picture

Trying to control content on the internet is like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. Best to just add a simple watermark to the side of your image and if it winds up on blogs or people's facebooks, at least it will generate traffic for your web site.

Trying to explain copyright to some dummy who has just stolen your image and reused it can be really frustrating, because they instantly tune you out when you bring up copyright laws and licensing and usage rights.

But if a company or organization steals your photo then you should, by all means, get paid and get paid well. If you have to shake a stick at them then it's worth standing your ground.

Brett Williams's picture


DeathNTexas's picture

I completely agree with the point that he is making.

There is a difference between sharing and stealing. If I put it on the internet (as part of my public portfolio), I have shared it. If other people share it beyond that, I don't have a problem as long as they know it is from me. Stock photography is a different beast. So is sold photography (like advertising). But <strong>A PORTFOLIO IS MEANT TO BE SEEN.</strong> I watermark it so no one can pass it off as theirs and send it out to the world.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I think it is sad that we are making the distinction between sharing and stealing at all. Seems that if something doesn't have a physical attribute then it's sharing but if it is something I can hold in my hands it's stealing.

We live in a world where property is both tangible and virtual. If I take a picture, I own it. If someone takes it, they have stolen it.

If they want to share it they need to ask and I'll consider who to share it with.

Making a profit is neither here nor there. If I copy a Madonna CD ad give it away to a few hundred people I've made no profit, I've not "stolen" anything physical - but you can be sure I've broken the law, both morally and technically.

By putting MY images on MY website means I want them displayed on MY terms. Just because they are downloadable or grab-able doesn't mean people I don't know have the right to put copies where they like with no permission.

Last time I looked, I'd invested £1000's in kit and countless hours creating my images. What gives the right to some oik to take them, copy them, distribute them without my express say so.

And checking who owns a picture has never been easier - if of course people have the good morals to check first.

Alas our modern society is teaching us that if we can see it we can have it. If society helps me buy my kit, comes with me on shoots, makes me tea whilst I work into the night on images... then yes maybe it can have a share in MY product.

And the biggest shame of it is that as photographers, we seem to be believing the same as society. "Share my stuff, take my efforts, do what you like with it as long as you don't make too much money - and never ask or tell me what you're doing with my images..."

Is this really how the profession of photography can survive. Fine for the keen amateur who is chuffed to see his / her work appreciated (?) around the world - but for the pro... sorry I'm going to bill whoever "shares" my work.

Mbutu Namubu's picture

Hi leethecam,

In a previous post, I mentioned how the relationship between stealing and sharing is ultimately determined by the medium used and it was similar to what you stated here:

"Seems that if something doesn't have a physical attribute then it's
sharing but if it is something I can hold in my hands it's stealing."

According to media theory, it's proper to compare electronic media with the spoken word and mechanical media with the written word. People speak to each other using words and language that no individual speaker can ever truly own. Spoken words are social in nature and are shared. However, written words can most definitely be attributed to an individual author and this makes them private property and subject to copyright laws to prevent theft. The spoken word can only be shared while the written word can definitely be stolen. Both mediums are made up of "words," yet one is tangible while the other is intangible. The tangible form of the word is the only one that can actually be protected, or in the legal sense, stolen.

Electronic media, like the spoken word, can never effectively be protected by copyright laws. But, they can still be protected by SOCIAL means that are outside of the law. The way to protect social content is by subjecting offenders to peer pressure, public humiliation and ostracism etc. So, for example, if a digital image is shared without the creator's permission, then the creator has recourse to publicly condemn the accused offender. In many ways, social pressure can actually be more effective than legal means because it can have immediate results. Nobody likes to be embarrassed, so unauthorized "sharers" will often back down when they are condemned on popular websites and blogs etc.

In the end, intangible digital media can still be protected but only by social means. Folks that are working in digital media might want to get creative and start spending their time finding new solutions for applying social pressure on unauthorized "sharing" rather than worrying about copyright laws.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Interesting points... but download a Beatles track from i-Tunes (electronic media) and "share" it with a few thousand friends on a video and see how many lawyers persuade you to stop through social pressure.

My images are copyrighted. I am protected and I will use that protection to enforce my rights.

Social pressure is a weak form of pressure when it comes to the mighty £££ and greed of those wanting something for free.

True it is difficult to police, but not difficult to enforce.

DeathNTexas's picture

I get your analogy, but I don't think it fits. The Beatles tune is the commodity to be sold. Whereas portfolio photos are not. They are meant to be spread as advertisement. However, if someone uses them as stock photography— includes them in an ad or in print— then the photo becomes the commodity and you should protect it.

Posting your photo on a blog (with your watermark) is different than using it as a stock image. In one instance, you are getting something in return (advertisement) in the other you are not. If it isn't part of your portfolio, why post it to the web?

Chris Knight's picture

Well put.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Portfolio images are only meant to be spread within the confines of the owner's wishes. Taking the Beatles analogy, i-Tunes allows a free listening to part of every track before purchase. This is akin to a portfolio. If I were to "share" this or the whole song I'm sure Apple's legal team wouldn't see it as spreading advertisement.

I think the problem is that we're seeing digital media as unprotectable. Nearly everything is digital media in the media world now - is it all unprotectable, I think not.

My pictures on my website are on a server, space on which is rented by me. I allow people to VIEW the images but that is all. In this respect my images are very much a tangible asset - they exist on a physical medium, the heard drive of the server. To assume they are available to download and do what the taker wants is folly.

As it happens I have had success with a major broadcaster with copyright on my images. they were using my images that were not theirs and I had a programme cancelled and taken off air because of it. It required no more than a legal threat and they did so immediately, no doubt at great cost. I'm sure if their legal team had thought all I had was peer pressure, the programme would have stayed on air.

We need to stop thinking of images on websites as not real or things just floating in the wind. They are real, tangible, exist on a physical medium and have an owner. In this respect they have protection.

Whether we describe it as theft or copyright violation is just semantics. Take my pictures and I'm coming after you with a big legal stick or an invoice.

DeathNTexas's picture

If they used your images without your watermark— thus without credit— yes, they have violated a trust and should be sued. That is what I am saying. However, if you don't want anyone but you to display your images, at all,....well.... that is the opposite of the what the internet does. It is the compromise that we make for a worldwide audience.

It is an unfounded expectation of control. It would be like publishing a photo book and trying to say that it can only be bought new (no used copies to be resold or donated to charity shops), or that it can only be viewed under certain lighting conditions. Either way, it is out of your control. It is out in the world.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Whilst is is certainly not in my immediate control I do have the right to expect control over my images. Sharing is something we do with permission. Taking is something we do without permission.

My images have control when I supply licence to use by my clients. Part of that agreement is that I (and only I) have the right to use them as portfolio pictures.

Now if someone has a blog or wants to show my pictures they can contact me and if appropriate I will allow use of images.

If they don't want to ask, they can put a link to my images.

But to actually place my images on their site is another thing. With or without a credit. This would involve right clicking and saving or screen grabbing. The former is downloading the image from my server and the latter is making a (possibly inferior) derivative copy.

I'm not against sharing. I'm not against my work being copied and put on other locations. But ask first, or pay when I send the bill. It's an easy choice and one the copier has available before the action.

An image is just data, just like a program is data. Copy a piece of software and distribute it / make it available to see with out the author's permission and see what happens.

I've not signed up for a compromise of control by putting my pictures up for viewing and I've not signed off on any contract which says I should. In this respect I have the right to demand control, whether or not I choose to exercise it is my prerogative. For society to decide that the internet is a licence to copy is folly - however popular.

I don't expect that people won't copy my images without permission - it happens. But I do expect to issue an invoice and receive payment for those times if I feel. Again, copy and pay or ask and see... It's a choice to make before hitting the right click save option.

DeathNTexas's picture

I will never convince you (nor you me), but I did want to say this. There are multiple factions at work: legal contracts, social contracts, and social mores. What you describe is based solely on legal standing, but is an outdated view of the social contracts and mores.

Social expectations (mores and contracts) have been redefined because the culture has been redefined, both by the internet and now by blogging. Your values appear to be based in print media and do not reflect the social values of the new media. I expect copyright laws to change soon to reflect that, as well.

micha8583's picture

I wholly agree with this post, I think it's the best free advertising for any photographer to see his pictures go viral - with a watermark or intact Exifs- so any potential client can trace them back to you. (unlike FB, where Exifs are carefully stripped on upload).

However, I draw the line where a substantial profit comes into play. Like images for newspapers, book covers, posters, in short, anything where your image now comes with a price tag.
I think it should be a re- establishend fact that it's not ok to make money off somebody else's work without due and fair compensation. Here, some potential customers need to be re- educated...
Just my 2 cents...

Erik Johansson's picture

You have a choice to put the work online or not, if you do people will steal i, that's just the way it is. But I think the benefit of the work being spread far exceeds the stealing part. /E

RUSS T.'s picture

put a tasteful watermark on it?

Am i wrong or,,,,

usually the thieves remove the watermarks, copyright symbols, and anything else that points towards the original owner of the pics.

whatever :)

enjoy all

good luck