You’d think there’s enough evidence by now that stealing other people’s images is only for the truly dumb. Whether it’s one of the world’s largest news agencies facing a $123M copyright suit, a hipster freetard heisting a veteran photographer’s best-known image, or a British Labour government sabotaging their own election campaign, the sad and expensive results of photo theft are there for all to see.
But no, you just can’t help some people: and so last week two master copyright crooks simultaneously did an excellent job of proving Einstein’s First Theory of Stupidity.
In Arkansas USA wedding photographer and “lover of Jesus” Meagan Kunert had a nice little business going: or at least she did until Canadian wedding photographer Amber Hughes discovered her work on Kunert’s website. Hughes hit twitter, and soon other photographers were reporting that they too had been ripped off by Kunert. The story was picked up by David “Strobist” Hobby’s 65,000 followers, and within hours #fauxtographer was trending and an angry mob with torches and pitchforks were laying siege to every Internet property associated with Kunert, who promptly packed her bags and got out of cyberspace.
Her twitter feed was first to go, rapidly followed by her website, probably sunk under the weight of DMCA takedown notices. Kunert attempted a last stand at Facebook; after pulling her page for few hours she took a revivalist approach, relaunching it with the kind of apology associated with southern preachers who’ve been caught evangelising away from home:
“I hate that I have tarnished the name of Jesus in doing this, and I have got some serious soul searching to do over the coming days, weeks, and months. I know that God does not approve of my choices and that he hates hypocrites such as myself. I also know that God can take my brokenness and turn it around for His glory, which is what I intend to do. If you are the praying folk, I would like to ask you to pay [sic] for me and my family.”
But the Internet is not the deep south and the congregation at Facebook turned out not to be the praying kind: hundreds of comments later it was Kunert who had to pay, as her Facebook page disappeared again, this time probably for good.
Across the pond, just as the Internet was preparing the last rites for Kunert’s business, VoucherDigg set about digging their own grave. One of a myriad of UK companies offering vouchers for package holidays, VoucherDigg was advertising a cheap deal in Portugal from Low Cost Holidays. Naturally they wanted an appropriate image: it had to be from Portugal, and preferably close to the resort they were offering. Ideally it would also need to appeal to families with young children.
And so with impeccable logic VoucherDigg stole the last known photograph of Madeleine McCann, the three year old girl who five years ago disappeared only 25 miles from the holiday resort they were advertising, and the subject of one of the biggest UK and Portuguese news stories of recent times. What could possibly go wrong?
Retribution was public, swift and relentless. The story of VoucherDigg’s use of the McCann photo was rapidly plastered across the world’s media and Low Cost Holidays immediately disowned them. Worse, M’Learned Friends at the world’s scariest law firm announced that they would be handling the matter for the distraught parents. Within a day VoucherDigg shared Kunert’s fate. First their website groaned under the weight of traffic they had probably always dreamed of; then it disappeared as they discovered the reason for their newfound popularity. Finally the site, registered at the University of East Anglia campus in Norwich – presumably at the English As A Foreign Language Department – was replaced by a grovelling apology:
“We were sorry!
Our editing team made the mistake, that Madeleine McCann’s image was linked to the discount holidays to Portugal. We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing that occurred. We unreservedly apologise for the hurt suffered by Mr. and Mrs. McCann.
We regret our not acting faster to sort things out because of our editing team and management overseas not being concerned about the British social news and not realizing the wrongdoing. We realise that this explanation and simply apologising are not enough, because the hurt and damage are irretrievable. In the coming days, we shut down voucherdigg.co.uk to show our sincere apology.
We deeply apologies to Mr. and Mrs. McCann. We deeply apologies to the society. We also apologies to the lowcostholidays for the negative brand affect, who has nothing to do with this issue.”
There are a few lessons in all this for image thieves. For one, Jesus won’t save you: your business is going straight to hell. For another, brush up on your language skills so you can at least produce the literate apology you’re inevitably going to need. But most important of all, join the Meagan Kunert Bible Study Group Inc™ and brush up on your knowledge of the Eighth Commandment: because if you ignore that one the Internet will kick your ass.
Question: what do you call someone who campaigns for anyone to be allowed to publish a photographer’s work without permission, and then complains when someone publishes his wife’s photographs without permission? Answer: Cory Doctorow.
Our old friends Irony and Schadenfreude had a field day last week when writer and wannabe copyright reformer Doctorow mounted the Boing Boing barricades to rant against “the awful Daily Mail, a hateful right-wing tabloid that keeps finding new bottoms to scrape.”
That’s an interesting image, but what was the reason for his ire? Apparently his wife Alice snapped an anorexic mannequin in Gap and uploaded the image to TwitPic; Doctorow then published the photo at Boing Boing accusing Gap of “death camp chic”. The Mail, ever on the lookout for a good scandal, picked up on the story and called asking to use the image.
Despite their reservations about the Mail the Doctorows, after due consideration of, oh, a few seconds or so, decided the hateful right-wing tabloid could have the snap for a charity donation of £250. The Mail [part of Associated Newspapers, with 2010 operating profits of £42M] countered that was beyond their budget. Then the Mail did what the Mail does, and lifted the photo anyway – along with a few juicy quotes into the bargain.
Unsurprisingly the Doctorows were outraged, hence the Cory vent in which he accused the Mail of “ripping off” the picture, ending with a demand for £2,000 for two infringed images and the vaguely threatening words “updates to come, I’m sure”. But could this be the same Cory Doctorow that has spent most of his adult life campaigning for the weakening of copyright laws? The Doctorow that tours as a poster boy for Creative Commons licenses that allow photographers’ work to be used without permission? The one that “rips off” photographs for his own articles?
Well, er, yes; which is why a few of the responses to his article were less than kind, accusing him of hypocrisy. However the Doctorow fan boys, like Cory usually very much in favour of redistributing photographers’ work without permission, felt his pain and the comments were largely filled with suggestions that the Doctorows should call M’ Learned Friends. Although it would be highly entertaining to watch the Doctorows sue the Mail for copyright infringement that’s sadly not going to happen; or at the very least they’ll have to get in line.
For what the Doctorows overlooked is that in uploading the image to TwitPic they had already given away their image distribution rights long before the Mail came calling. As the rest of the Internet already knows, TwitPic signed a highly contentious deal with the World Entertainment News Network in May that gives WENN distribution rights to any images uploaded to TwitPic, and without any payment to the image owner. So if anyone is going to be suing the Mail it will be WENN, not the Doctorows. Interestingly the story disappeared from the Mail site over the weekend without the Doctorows’ knowledge, so it may be that WENN have already contacted the paper.
The final irony is that only hours after his Mail bitch-fest, Doctorow was busy ripping off photographs himself. On August 16th, the day of Doctorow’s rant, the Guardian ran a story from the Edinburgh Festival with a photograph by Murdo Macleod. And the following day there was a story about the Edinburgh Festival on Boing Boing, filed by Cory Doctorow and with that very same Murdo Macleod image. Doubtless Doctorow took time off from discussing the Mail with his lawyers to ask Macleod’s permission to use the image. If not he will have already calculated what he owes Macleod for “ripping off” the photo: his own going rate of £1,000 per image.
It’s clear that Doctorow, despite his carefully constructed image as a cutting-edge thinker on intellectual property matters, has a lot to learn when it comes to copyright. But last week should have provided a lesson simple enough for even Doctorow to grasp: when it comes to intellectual property and ripping off other people’s photographs, what goes around comes around.
Last week showbiz news agency WENN announced a deal with Plixi to charge publishers who use images uploaded via the social media firm. The reason for the arrangement is simple. Plixi provides a vital public service by allowing the likes of Courtney Love to share her ladyparts with the world; and WENN is well positioned to make publishers pay the going rate for images of 47 year old divorcees in the bathroom, rather than swipe them for free as they have been doing. Proceeds from the sales of this important documentary imagery will apparently be split between WENN and Plixi: the photographers and copyright owners will – you guessed – get nothing.
Announcing the deal, WENN Chief Executive Lloyd Beiny presented himself as an old-fashioned lawman, claiming the arrangement will end the “digital Wild West” that has allowed publishers to “liberally help themselves to photos posted on Plixi and reproduce them with scant concern for the ownership of copyright”. Flanked by a posse of deputies riding shotgun Marshall Beiny continued:
“Everyone has turned a blind eye to the use of these pictures up until now, but sooner or later the people who own them are going to say you can’t just steal our pictures and republish them without paying for them.”
Beiny’s major think-fail is obvious, but just to spell it out: neither WENN nor Plixi are “the people who own” the pictures. Before the deal Courtney et al could simply drop their kaks, upload the images and await the free publicity. Nothing has changed in that process except that now WENN & Plixi will step in to demand a fee from anyone providing that publicity.
So, far from being the lawman riding into town to impose order, Beiny’s announcement is closer to other fine old Western traditions such as cattle rustling and land-grabs.
“Plixi does not claim ownership of content you submit or make available for inclusion on the service. However, with respect to content you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of the service, you grant Plixi the following worldwide, royalty-free and non-exclusive license(s), as applicable:
“With respect to content you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of Plixi, the license (with the right to sublicense) to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such content, whether on the service, or through other media.
“This license exists only for as long as you elect to continue to include such content on the service and will terminate at the time you remove or Plixi removes such content from the service; provided, however, that if Plixi distributes or authorizes distribution of any content prior to your removal thereof from the service, Plixi’s (and it’s sublicenses’) rights with respect to such content shall be in perpetuity.”
The funniest thing about this scheme is that of course it won’t work. Plixi is hardly unique: it is only one of a number of applications that allow users to link their images to their tweets. Users with images of any value to upload will simply go elsewhere.
The other problem is that WENN and Plixi are seeking to enforce the new terms retrospectively on material already uploaded. Retrospective terms are always a happy hunting ground for lawyers, and both celebs and publishers have plenty of those on tap. No publisher is going to pay for an already published image uploaded under Plixi’s former terms; and any celeb now regretting any previous careless uploads will doubtless be made even more unhappy at seeing WENN and Plixi cash in on their photographic faux pas. So one way or another expect to see this new deal challenged in court before long.
Still, there are worse fates than ending up in court wrangling over ownership of some Z-lister’s private parts. After all, in the good old days cattle rustling was a capital offence.
Unless the parties reach a settlement out of court Morel’s claims will go to a full jury trial in the New Year. AFP, Getty Images, CBS Broadcasting and Turner Broadcasting will face claims for copyright infringement and Digital Millennium Copyright Act violations; AFP and Getty will face further claims for contributory infringement and vicarious infringement. With widespread misuse of 13 images alleged damages and legal costs could run into many millions of dollars.
Essentially the defendants’ best option now is the same as it always was: quietly admit guilt and settle out of court on the best terms offered. Their problem is that they already tried that before the recent ruling and were rebuffed, so there’s no obvious reason why Morel should offer them a deal in their now severely weakened state. On the contrary Morel’s incentive is to go for the jugular, a favourable outcome in court when the claims are heard and maximum damages.
Indeed hitting AFP and Getty as hard as possible appears to have been the strategy of Morel’s lawyers from the start: not only are they pursuing the defendants under copyright law, but they also attempted to do so under trademark legislation, primarily for false advertising. Judge Pauley rejected all the trademark applications, which might lead a careless reader to think the defendants are somehow off the hook, but that is not the case. On the contrary it’s notable that at every point in his ruling where Pauley turned down Morel’s applications under trademark law the judge reminded him that the court was doing so because the protection and compensation he seeks are available through his applications under copyright law. The core of Pauley’s ruling is thus: “I’m not letting you go after them under trademark legislation because the law doesn’t allow it; but don’t worry, you can nail the bastards under copyright law.”
Pauley also rejected AFP’s sole remaining – and most ludicrous – defence, the so-called Content Management Information argument. In this AFP attorney Joshua Kaufman tied himself in knots trying to make a claim that Pauley derided as “implausible”: that because the words “by photomorel” merely appeared alongside the photographs, rather than being embedded in the images, a viewer – such as AFP – was unable to identify the author.
The ruling not only leaves AFP’s legal strategy in disarray, it is deeply embarrassing for a number of observers and would-be experts who have spoken out in support of the agency. On the eve of the case US National Press Photographers’ Association lawyer Mickey H. Osterreicher announced:
“Unfortunately for Mr. Morel, in an attempt to transmit his spot news photographs of the Haiti earthquake to the outside world he apparently overlooked the the applicable terms and conditions of posting images on Twitter.”
That’s exactly the opposite of the court ruling: let’s hope Mr. Osterreicher never has to present a case to Judge Pauley.
“Anyone who puts images on Flickr or on Twitter, and then sees them being used, well too bad for him… a photographer should never put his images on a social networking site. If you put your image on Twitter or Flickr and find that it’s been stolen by someone else, well… tough.”
Wrong again. Pauley’s ruling states very clearly what was obvious from the start: that photographers are entitled to exactly the same protection at social networking sites as they are, for example, at the Visa Pour L’Image site.
Worst of all however was Washington photographer and business advisor John Harrington, who published a lengthy defence of AFP and attack on Morel last October. In light of the ruling it’s worth revisiting some of Harrington’s insights:
“The photographer is in the wrong”
“Their [Twitter’s] conveyance of those rights to third parties – in this case AFP, is perfectly within the bounds of their rights, and Morel is out of line.”
“The fact is, Twitter’s T&C give AFP permission, granted to them by Morel, when he accepted them as a condition of his use of Twitter.”
“AFP did NOT steal them, they have a license (permission) to use them.”
“AFP has obtained their rights from Twitter who legitimately got them from Twitpic who legitimately got them from Morel. AFP did the right thing.”
How about that for sound business advice?
One way or another all of these people claim to have the best interests of photographers at heart, yet they have all made interventions that are not only contrary to those interests, but that have been exposed by the court ruling as factually and legally incorrect. It will be interesting to hear what, if anything, are their reactions to the judgment.
Is that the sound of silence we hear?
Leroy was expanding on his previous defence of Agence France Presse in their court case versus photographer Daniel Morel, who is suing the agency for distributing his work without permission. Previously Leroy had criticised Morel for initially placing his Haiti images on TwitPic, but in his new comments he goes further, suggesting photographers completely avoid all such social media sites:
“Anyone who puts images on Flickr or on Twitter, and then sees them being used, well too bad for him… a photographer should never put his images on a social networking site. If you put your image on Twitter or Flickr and find that it’s been stolen by someone else, well… tough. You can’t ask me to defend you. What I’d like is for all photographers reading this is that they stop putting images on such sites.”
At first there appears some logic to Leroy’s position, but that rapidly disappears on even a cursory inspection. If social media sites were really places where any visitor was welcome to plunder whatever they found photographers would indeed be best advised to stay clear. But that simply is not the case. Most social media sites – including those mentioned by Leroy – have terms designed to prevent the third party use of contributors’ material. One could argue that the terms are not well enforced, but that’s very different from claiming the terms don’t exist, or that they mean the opposite of what they clearly state.
Leroy’s rationale – that a certain group of people should avoid particular places because something bad might happen to them if they venture there – turns the world upside down and shifts blame for the crime from the perpetrator to the victim. In 2010 in the real world outside the web few would dare come out with such nonsense. Don’t agree? Then try this on for size:
“Any girl who goes to these clubs, and then gets assaulted, well too bad for her… a girl should never go to a nightclub. If you go to one and get raped, well… tough. You can’t ask me to defend you. What I’d like is for all women reading this is that they stop going to such places.”
Leroy’s position is not just perverse and offensive: it’s also baffling because it runs directly counter to the stated philosophy of the festival of which he is a director. For years Visa has taken pride in exhibiting images that haven’t been published in the mass media; a perennial criticism has been that the festival shows too many images, to which Leroy replies he has a duty to show stories that would otherwise remain unseen. But if he genuinely wants stories to gain the widest possible audience Leroy should support photographers’ use of social media. Sure, a Flickr stream may not have the cachet of an evening show or exhibition at Perpignan, but if it’s pure eyeballs a photographer is after, the web and social media will trump Visa every time.
The reality of this squabble – which Leroy doesn’t admit, but may well suspect – is that social media sites are a far bigger threat to image distributors than they are to image creators. For if freelance news photographers use social media to distribute material to publishers they no longer have any need for organisations like AFP. Now there’s a thought.