Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Photo Storage Site, Copyright Infringement, and Unprofessional Professionals

As the saying goes "When it rains, it pours" so did my eye opening experiences last week. Over the weekend, I posted a recent experience that I had while doing market research. Shortly after that, I had another experience pertaining to copyright that really opened my eyes once again to the presence of other businesses and some of their practices.

Here's my recent tale of a photo storage site, copyright infringement, and unprofessional professionals.................

While trolling the internet over the weekend (one of the few things that I can still do pleasantly while hugely pregnant!), I came across an instance where a commercial blog had used one of my Flickr account photos in an article they had posted a few months ago. It is not terribly uncommon that my product images be used on commercial and personal blogs since I and my work have been very fortunate to be featured on dozens of blogs, big and small, over the last few years. Ordinarily, those who do use my images ask my permission or notify me in some way. On the rare occasion that they don't, and I run across a featured photo online on my own, it has never been a problem because the use of my photos have always been directly related to myself or my work and have been very, very complementary in the past. In every instance that I remember previously, having my photos featured has been a pleasant surprise and great publicity too which I have been thankful for...... until now.

The site that had decided to use one of my Flickr account photos, without being too specific on details, is a commercial blog for an established U.S. based media business. After looking through other blog articles of theirs, it appears that they often use Flickr photos in their postings. Unfortunately, the post where my photo was used had nothing to do directly with myself or my artwork, and the photo that they chose from my copyrighted Flickr photos was a personal photo of me working at my computer - not a product photo of any kind. Worst of all, the blog post was essentially about the setbacks of hiring amateurs or DIY-er's to do media work for you! The fact that they were using me, an independent graphic designer and fiber artist, as their poster child for this negative idea about DIY was quite insulting. After all, I have a degree in graphic design, have been a professional graphic designer in publishing, and also taught college level graphic design courses for the past several years, not to mention my experience as a fiber artist. "ARRGGGHHH!" to say the least! Although, in their defense, I don't think that they had bothered checking up on who I was or anything about me. To them, it was just a filler photo that they snatched from Flickr for their blog article post.

So what did I do? Well, besides getting rather annoyed about the situation, I calmly contacted them with a short message to remove the photo immediately because they did not have permission to use my personal photos, nor was I ever contacted for permission or notified of its use. Since they provided no direct email address on their commercial blog or main company site, I left the message in the form of a comment on the article as well as sending it via their main website's contact page. To my surprise, within a matter of hours, the photo was removed, and I received an email from the head of the company. I had a sigh of relief to see that the photo had been removed so quickly, but I was very frustrated by the unapologetic email that I received from someone who claims to be a professional. Essentially, I was told that if I didn't want my photos being used by others to delete them entirely from Flickr, and I was given the link to Flickr's community guidelines for reference that they had permission to blog my photos for their "personal" use - only it really wasn't for personal use at all! This well-established, so-called professional company, had basically just told me that they could use any of my photos that they wanted to (who cares about copyright infringement), and that they only removed the photo as a courtesy. Once again, "ARRGGGHHH!"

I replied to the abrupt email with a more lengthy explanation of what copyright infringement really was and tried to explain that Flickr was not a free stock photo gallery. I even explained that there were privacy settings in Flickr and clearly displayed copyright permissions on every photo page. Then I pointed out Flickr's Creative Commons area where there were photos that people were willing to share for others to use more freely. After all, copyright considerations is a subject that I have taught every semester to my intro level graphic design students - it is basic knowledge in my field, but it is also a very important part of the media and graphics community that any professional should already know! As of the time of this post, I did receive one more email communication about the matter from the media company. I was informed that they still stand behind their actions and believe what they did was okay because, according to them, it falls into Flickr's guidelines since my photo was not used for "commercial" purposes (even though it was on a blog directly linked to and related to their business website in a post about a subject matter related directly to their business services). My response to that is "Huh?" It just didn't make a lot of sense. Sadly, I believe that they probably do not care what this professional has to say on the subject of copyright infringement and will probably continue to use whatever photos that they want from Flickr and perhaps other online sources - regardless of any full-disclosure copyright statements that may exist. Since they obviously can justify their actions, in their mind, their actions must be okay - at least that seems to be their current reasoning.

After this incident, I recently double-checked and changed some of my Flickr settings to the most private possible so now no one can hit a "blog this" button and blog about any of my photos easily (even if it is truly just for personal use), nor can anyone download different sizes of my photos for digital or print use - not even my contacts. Prior to this incident, I had already made most of my privacy settings as strict as possible including an "All rights reserved" copyright along with putting a clear copyright statement in my profile, but apparently, this was not and still may not be enough for those who don't understand what this means or just don't really care which is more often the case, and seems to be what happened in this instance. I still feel a little like someone stole my wallet or another tangible, material item from me, and I finally got it back, but I will always feel robbed in a way. That is what copyright infringement does - it robs you. Whether those who so idly do it want to admit it or not, copyright infringement is a form of theft.

As an aside, and to make things clear on the subject of Flickr......... The truth is that I really love Flickr and just renewed my pro membership there for another year. I do not blame Flickr in any way for what happened to me regarding the above incident, nor should I. Obviously, Flickr can not control who searches their site and what their intentions are. Flickr is a wonderful photo sharing and storage service that is well worth the money. I will continue to store photos of my artwork there for safe keeping as well as personal photos as long as they'll have me. And, I love the community there too along with my 2,500+ contacts and many groups that I belong too. Therefore, I will not be taking the unsolicited advice of the media business and delete all of my photos if I don't want them to suffer copyright infringement - ridiculous "professional" advice really!

The bottom line is that there are always going to be some very unprofessional "professionals" out there. There are always going to be individuals and companies who are obviously successful, but not necessarily ethical in their practices or understandings. I guess that I could stick my head in a hole and hide or be intimidated into doing what they want to impose on me because I am the little guy in business, but I will not. There is room for everyone in the business world. It is just that, unfortunately on occasion, not everyone in the business world respects your room in it.

**Just An FYI Reference: If you'd like to learn more about U.S. copyright, I highly recommend that you visit Copyright.gov and learn about copyright laws and considerations first hand.


  1. I wish I had a more cogent comment than the "argh!!!!!!!!!" that's running through my brain right now, but that's all I can share without delving into profanity. :( My problems with copyright involve the use of my designs more than they do the use of my photos, but either way, it's theft! Sorry this has happened to you and that the perpetrators are so very unprofessionally self-righteous about the whole thing. ARGH!

  2. You are terrific to follow up on this matter and try to educate others regarding copyright. I'm sure they "got it", but probably are being advised not to admit any wrong-doing. I say, one for the home team... thanks on behalf of all creatives :D


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