Raise your hand if you’ve ever done a Google image search, then copied and pasted one of the images into your presentation, or website, or… anywhere. Guess what! You just committed a federal crime. If you copy a photo from a Google search, Pinterest, Instagram, or anywhere online you didn’t get permission from the photographer/copyright holder, it’s a copyright violation.
From the photographer’s point of view, seeing our work being used somewhere without our permission is a special kind of burning sensation. We feel angry, frustrated, violated. And we feel especially provoked on behalf of our clients if it’s a photo we were hired to take for someone else. Sometimes that photo is stolen off our own website, sometimes our client’s website. However the thief acquired it, the irritation of the injustice is the same.
How do photographers find out their photos have been stolen? If we don’t happen to stumble upon it accidentally (which I did once when searching through Pinterest for ideas of outfits to wear for headshots and came across my own photos on a North Carolina photographer’s website, posing as his work…), then we use reverse image searching services like Pixsy. After uploading all our photos that we know have been on a public platform such as the internet or social media, it shows us other instances of those photos elsewhere on the web.
Maybe I’m a weirdo, but one of my favorite hobbies is scanning the internet for illegal uses of my photos and sending strongly worded cease-and-desist letters with harrowing threats of immediate litigation.
I personally LOVE the bullsh** excuses I get in response to those letters when people are caught red-handed. That photographer in NC who was using our photos as examples of “his” work said a disgruntled ex-intern must have put them up there to get him in trouble and he didn’t notice. (Um, sure, buddy.) Most of the time, it’s a company using our headshots as images next to testimonials or bio photos of people who may or may not actually work there, which makes you wonder if the testimonials are real if the images are not (all of our own testimonials are real by the way). And when I send those cease-and-desist letters they almost always act shocked and say that their web designer inserted those images. Some have even told us their web designer SOLD them those images.
Quick super tip: if you have a web designer or graphic designer inserting placeholder images on a design, that’s totally okay. But once it goes public, do NOT assume they own the rights to use those placeholder images as the actual images for your website. Get proof. Because a photographer like me might come knocking on your door one day with legal backup, and you’d be on the hook for the stolen goods, not your designer.
Let’s take a little time for a quick explanation of copyright… Federal copyright law says that whoever created the work (snapped the photo, drew the picture, composed the poem) is immediately the owner of that work. (Unless there is a work-for-hire contract between the parties which specifically outlines that anything they create immediately has the copyright transferred, which does not apply to 1099 contractors or business-to-business vendor services.) A license is the written agreement in which the copyright holder grants a user certain rights to use the photo/work.
So unless I, as the photographer, granted someone a license to use the photo, they cannot do so, and are in violation of copyright if they do. ALSO! Some states have certain rights to privacy or rights of publicity laws. So if a photo is an image of you, and you didn’t give a user permission to use that photo (usually by signing a photographer’s release form there’s a clause for it to be used where the photographer chooses), you can also seek damages if someone uses an image of you without the photographer’s permission (if you signed their release and they still own the copyright).
When sending out my quarterly cease-and-desist letters the other month, I had one offender respond with “we found the image on a public server where your website is stored, therefore it is public domain, and we can use it.” If you’re a copyright lawyer and reading this right now, I hope you didn’t hurt yourself laughing.
Public Domain images aren’t just images stored “publicly.” They are images where the copyright has expired or has been waived in some way. If something isn’t labeled as “public domain” IT IS NOT out there for public usage. My response to that particular offender was something along the lines of, “if you believe that argument will hold up in court, send this to your attorney because they can now talk to mine.” The image was removed within an hour.
As a PPA member, I get a certain amount of legal services included in my membership dues to help protect my copyrighted images, which helps me to draft some serious “come at me, bro” cease-and-desist letters, because I know they’ve got my back. Currently, copyright violations have to be fought in Federal court, which is pricey for both parties, so most of these small disputes end with the offender taking the photos down and both parties walking away before any real attorneys with billable hours get pulled into the mix. But the PPA and other arts’ organizations have been making huge steps recently in lobby Congress for getting copyright disputes moved to small claims courts, so that a countless number of creators of all kinds of works will be better able to defend themselves.
Meanwhile, I will continue spending time on my dorky hobby of sending cease-and-desist letters. My favorite one this year was the travel writer who used a photo I took of an award-winning, bestselling published novelist as his own bio photo. I let him and every outlet he wrote for which was publishing the image know that if they didn’t remove it within 48 hours, I would be alerting the author, his agent, and his publisher, and ALL their attorneys would be contacting them. Okay, so maybe I’m a little devious. And I might have actually cackled out lout when I hit “send.” But it worked. And you should read his book, by the way, it’s really good. And copyright protected.