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Great picture — too bad it’s not yours

By From page A9 | August 04, 2013

Imagine something you’ve created. Something you’re really proud of, that required your talent, creativity and professionalism. A poem or sculpture. A dress that you designed. Something you worked at. And then imagine that it gets stolen and widely reproduced. With someone else’s name on it. And, it’s making a lot of money for them. And, maybe for a product you don’t even like.

Thanks to the Internet, photographers are struggling with this theft and are having a hugely difficult time reining it in. Who’s to blame? Well, besides shady entrepreneurs, me and you.

Yes, you, and you probably don’t even know you’re doing it. I know I didn’t.

How many times have you discovered a great photo online and made it your Facebook cover? Used it on your blog or website? Used it on a brochure? I know I’ve used online photos many times. I can find a photo of practically anything on “Google Images.” I assumed that Google’s images are in the public domain, unless specifically noted otherwise. I assumed wrong. Many of those photos are essentially stolen from photographers who posted them and then lost control of them.

Award-winning photographer Kathy Keatley Garvey (who works at UC Davis as a communication specialist and is one of my iPinion colleagues), added me to a “Photo Thievery” Facebook group, where I began reading of photographers’ struggles in retaining ownership of their work.

Their stories struck a chord with me because back in 1997, I wrote a column entitled, “Dear Santa, All I Want for Christmas is to Slap Martha Stewart,” that was mass-distributed as an email “joke.” Normally, I’d call thousands of eyes seeing my work “free publicity.” However, there was one problem: My name wasn’t on it.

Now, back in 1997, my columns were only on newsprint, not online. That means someone had to take the time to retype that column, and thankfully, did so without errors, but didn’t bother to type three more words: By Debra Ramos (now, DeAngelo, of course, and for a while, LoGuercio). Sparked by the Photo Thievery discussions, I started to wonder: What’s my column up to these days? I only had to search the title to find out. The answer? Plenty. It’s all over the place. And, in each case, without my name.

Now, some of these websites are selling advertising. Making a profit, in other words. And they’re doing so by illegally using my work, and likely the work of many others. I got steamed. I emailed www.ahajokes.com, and they responded immediately and said they’d add my byline. Another removed the column at once. Two down, scores more to go.

Apparently copyright infringement for writers gets noticed. Not so for photographers. Once online, their photos are like lone ships in pirate-infested waters. Kathy told me about her own horror stories. She writes an award-winning blog, Bug Squad, on which she posts insect photos every night, and has been doing so for five years. That’s a lot of photos. The blog gets about a million hits per year. That’s a lot of eyes. And potential thieves.

One photo in particular, a rare image of a bee sting in progress, went viral. Named one of Huffington Post’s most amazing photos of 2012, as well as one of the “world’s most perfectly timed photos,” it won first place in an international photo competition. The ownership of the copyrighted photo is inarguable. However, others take credit for it and steal it to post on their websites or social media pages anyway.

Some the abuses include a website in Iraq and a Flickr user that copyrighted and used that photo, while others cropped off the copyright notice and used it without accreditation. Kathy’s photo of an Italian bee on lavender was stolen, and the website invited everyone to download the “free” image for wallpaper. Other stolen photos were used for advertising and marketing, including for pesticides, health care products, yarn, medical products and documentaries, all without Kathy’s knowledge or consent. Or compensation.

Her favorite bee-in-flight photo was used for a fundraiser by a Peruvian beekeeping association, which raised about $1,450. Others used that photo to advertise a documentary — for which they were selling tickets. Another of her favorite honeybee photos was used as someone’s avatar. Someone else, “rejected in love,” swiped Kathy’s butterfly photo for her own blog about her “mid-life chrysalis.” Kathy suspects she found the photo on Bug Squad and simply removed the copyright.

“I felt violated,” says Kathy.

Although Google Images is the photo theft catalyst, Kathy says photographers can do a “Google reverse image search” and find out who’s using their photos. Sadly, when Kathy did so, and demanded her property back, she didn’t get the immediate cooperation that I did. One person remarked “Wind your neck back in.” Another told her to “get a life.” Also, unlike my column, the theft of Kathy’s work is so widespread, tracking every incident down would take forever.

“I don’t have time to monitor all the unauthorized uses,” says Kathy. “I just wish people would take their own photos. It’s a rewarding hobby — except when people steal — and then it kind of makes me not want to write a nightly blog. And sometimes I just feel like just hanging up the cameras.

I don’t want Kathy, or any other photographer, to hang up their cameras. We can help by obeying the law. According to the National Copyright Office, “In the case of photographs, the photographer is generally the copyright holder… Copyright is secured upon creation. Therefore, the photographer owns the copyright once he/she has created the photograph. Under Section 106 of the Copyright Law, the copyright holder has certain exclusive rights, including the right to copy, distribute and display the work.”

It’s like anything else: Just because you see something you like doesn’t mean you can just take it.

“I think that people need to know that just because they ‘found’ the photo on the Internet, they are not entitled to use it,” says Kathy.

— Email Debra DeAngelo at [email protected]; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.ipinionsyndicate.com

Debra DeAngelo

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