In the Dying Age of Copyright

When the term copyright comes up, most people think about music or movies. This association has been popularized by legal action against Pirate’s Bay and Napster.

In the past decade there has been a vehement push to protect copyright in the music and film industry. There has even been an anti-piracy ad that suggested you wouldn’t steal a car; why would you steal a movie… At the epitome of hypocrisy, this ad ironically used stolen music itself.

Copyright is the legal notion that the creator of a piece of intellectual property (including but not limited to a scientific process, inventions, music, film, writing, or photography) owns the rights to the piece they created. Simply, if you took your knowledge, experience, and talent (human capital) and used it to create something, you own the product. A camera on its own with respect to art is inherently worthless, it does not have the vision, or creativity to see the world with an intelligent eye. A camera in the hands of a toddler also inherently will not capture art, although there may be a comedic factor. A camera in the hands of a professional artist will likely create something artistic and beautiful.

Ownership when it comes to digital works is extraordinarily misunderstood and quite often ignored. Photographers can be commissioned to do work, but unless they have agreed to relinquish the rights to their images, they retain ownership of the images they captured. For some strange reason, the majority of people do not understand this concept or that digital images have the same value as other works of art. I can’t even count the number of times I have had to explain the value of works by Andreas Gursky or Cindy Sherman. When Rhein II sold in 2011 for 4.3M people lost their minds. Is this because of how accessible photography has become?

Nowadays photography has become such an accessible art form that many would be professionals enter the field. They enter with hopes and dreams to make it big, to be influential, and to produce stunning works that will be appreciated by all. Many of these would be professional photographers are told day in, and day out, that they just need the right person to see their work. If that magical person sees their work they will be become famous, make millions and live happily ever after with their camera in tow photographing models in exotic far off lands every day. Typically, this line is fed to the would be professional photographer by someone who is looking for nothing but free services and general exploitation. It’s frequently a manager of a large income business that just doesn’t want to pay for the true cost of advertising. They offer the opportunity for the would be photographers work to be showcased somewhere while the advertising makes said company a pretty penny. In the end the photographers ‘exposure’ gets them nothing and they may have paid out of pocket for expenses incurred. How fair does this seem?

– The Oatmeal


Another example of this glorious mentality is Unsplash. It is a start-up that is structured on the belief that professional photographers should give their work away for free, since it will give them tons of exposure. If you really believe that it will make your career, go for it, but those who who participate fail to ask the question, “what will happen once the Unsplash is sold?”. What if Getty decides to buy Unsplash and decides put these free photos up for sale? That photographer is now directly losing out on money that they could be making.

Unsplash is not the only website that promotes photos for free use. There are quite a few of other websites, some more popular than other, that offer users free storage to catalogue images they find online for their own use, and some provide tools to help remove images off websites, even if there is blocking script, watermark on the images (some offer a tool to remove this) or a terms and services page that doesn’t allow it. This puts many content creators at risk for finding their images being used without consent or licensing for advertising and other commercial purposes. A shining example of this can be seen with my own work:

This is the reason why I decided to do this write up, I find that there is just an insanely blatant disregard for the hard work and talent of many creatives. I feel the need to stand up for an industry that is regularly taken advantage of. I’m going to set a side my anger at how and where the images were being used to discuss this.

Alex Wild said it best, “Most copyright holders are individuals; most infringers are businesses. Things are broken”. This could not be truer. We live in a society where it is becoming entirely acceptable for large multibillion dollar corporations to take advantage of people. This is a going far beyond unfair pay to having some very large company bully individuals out of their livelihood. Telling them that they absolutely need their work to sell a product, and that their work makes a difference between making a thousand dollars and a billion, but at the same time their talent, time, and work is worthless and should be free.

The sad thing is this is happing to photographers and artists everywhere. For example, Max Dubler, or Ezequiel Scagnetti who was harassed for calling out a musician who stole his photo. Jennifer Rondinelli Reilly who had to fight twitter to remove a copyrighted photo. Jason Sheldon, who had to chase ke$ha, Taylor Swift and recently Plot Commerce for unauthorized usage.

Sometimes, it’s an error in the company, where a new employee does not do their due diligence in order to verify copyright agreements and uses images without consent. Unfortunately, sometimes, companies believe that it would be cheaper to have their in-house lawyers bankrupt a photographer through the court system, in the off chance the photographer might come across the image they have used without consent, and request usage.

There is a common acceptance that people have developed, if the photo is on the web, it is free to take. The photographer will never see it, or peruse payment for usage. This is particularly salient when the content creator and theft occur in different countries, pursuing someone for payment is incredibly difficult if not impossible in many cases.

Keep in mind, photographers are not the only ones who are experiencing this, Metalica’s front man James Hetfield, said it best on the Joe Rogan Podcast:


In my personal experience, I have across some rather blatant copyright theft and plagiarism. If I am able to, I contact the company/individual who has used the image without authorization. There have been times that if I even get a reply people deny that it is my work, they concoct stories on how they shot the image, or just give me some explanation on how they didn’t know. When I do this, it is not to extort, it is to educate. I like to explain why it was wrong, the cost of the actual usage, and what copyright is, and that theft is theft no matter the medium.

Our world is filled with creative photos, stunning artwork, and provocative imagery, it was all created somewhere, by a single or dozens people each. These people love their craft, but at the end of the day, we cannot survive if our talent is taken for granted. Photographers just want to be compensated for the years of study, thousands of hours spent perfecting their craft. They want to pay those who worked on the project, the assistants, stylists, makeup artists, hair stylists, models, and location scouts. They don’t want to pay out of pocket for the expenses incurred to create the work, particularly when these works of art are being exploited to generate sales, users, and attention. If we continue this we are almost certain to destroy the creative industry, after all we can’t eat exposure when we run out of groceries.

If you are a photographer or content creator reading this, there are many ways to protect yourself:

  • Disable the right click feature on your website to block the save image as option
  • Disable the print screen feature on your website.
  • Watermark your images.
  • Check to see where your images have ended up on the web. Conduct a reverse image search in google, TinEye and binded are also fantastic image searches. This way you can see if they are already being used by unauthorized individuals.
  • If you live in the United States there is a government tool that helps you register your photos. (Binded also has a similar feature)

If you do find unauthorized usage, I suggest you look at your countries laws on copyright. I would also highly suggest getting advice from a legal professional. Particularly if the usage is major, do your research with legal help.

Copyright issues can take up a lot of time and can really detract from the creative process. It can also land you in months of headaches, legal issues, and soul sucking procedures. It is best to try and protect yourself up front, any way you can slow or prevent theft is worth it.

Your work and time is more valuable than free, don’t let yourself be taken advantage of. As someone who has found his images being used on massive billboards without permission I can guarantee that you won’t miss out on the exposure.

Disclaimer: The information contained within this article should not be construed as legal advice. Always consult a lawyer.