Image theft should be a thing of the past – a personal story

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We’re used to seeing images shared on social media, especially on feature accounts where this is considered normal. Photographers put a lot of time and effort into creating great images and once in a while we see our work stolen. This happened to me recently and I’d like to share the story with you.

I’m a travel photographer and writer. To create my images I put a lot of time and expense into being in the right place at the right time. Last week I opened my Instagram app to find I’d been mentioned in a comment on this photo. What makes this different is that it isn’t a feature account simply showcasing images, it’s a business selling a service. My photo had become a part of their social media marketing to attract people to click on their ‘link in bio.’ On clicking the link the viewer is presented with a series of trips worldwide. The trip to Medicine Lake is part of the Rocky Mountain tour and will set you back £2, 069/$2,760/€2,300. This outraged me immediately because this photo was being used to generate revenue for the company that was using it, but I saw nothing in return for the use of my image.

I thought for a moment about what to do because although there are services available to help us find our images online, this company had tagged me. I figured that part of their marketing plan was preying on the photographers who appreciate their images being shared anywhere and everywhere. I wasn’t going to be that person, though. I expect to be compensated for my work. Just as a professional working in any other industry, I have bills to pay and expenses to cover. My tactic would be to initially leave a comment on the post and see what kind of response I got.

I saw no response, but I did notice that the account posted another photo and therefore was active and had probably seen my comment. I logged in from another of my accounts and to my surprise, I didn’t see my comment. The image thief had hidden my comment from other users with the ‘restrict’ feature on Instagram. This did nothing other than enrage me so I laid down another comment:

I figured this one wasn’t likely to help my case at all so I explained myself again, publicly:

The truth is, this account represents a company that isn’t exactly a global player and their follower and engagement rates on Instagram are far below my own. If they did reach out prior to posting the image on their feed with something simple along the lines of ‘Hi, we really like your photo of Medicine Lake, do you mind if we share it on our feed?’ I would have probably said yes. It’s a case of leaving the little fish to concentrate on the big ones. The fact of the matter is that they didn’t ask, and as if they were rubbing salt in the wound they ignored my comment. I formed the idea that perhaps this company was using this tactic as part of a dirty marketing strategy and as such, on behalf of all the photographers they’d wronged, I declared war!

I filed a complaint to Instagram for a copyright violation which I’ve since cancelled, and here’s why. The following day, having clearly seen some sense, they responded to me.

It was an opening to a line of communication, at last. It did nothing to help though because it was an anonymous Instagram direct message rather than the e-mail I’d asked for. Their message seemed to be worded strangely at the start, which further aroused my suspicion of this company deliberately employing the marketing method I’d suspected. ‘We never intended to misuse your image’ is the phrase that to me that got me thinking. Misuse is a legal term which I hadn’t mentioned in my comments, so why would they use this term in their message? Well, combined with them further saying that they credited me, my thoughts were reinforced. It was highly likely that they take images from photographers without prior permission and hope that ‘exposure’ is sufficient compensation. Let me tell you – exposure doesn’t put food on my table. Here’s my response:

I took the opportunity to touch on some points pertinent to image licencing, such as usage, time, audience and size. I also pointed out that I was onto them and I had their plan figured out, ending with a reminder that it was communication by e-mail that I’d asked for. Finally, they sent an e-mail which aroused my suspicions even further.

The e-mail was fairly succinct and immediately made a monetary offer. This demonstrates quite clearly that they know I mean what I’m saying and that they know they’re at fault. To be honest, their offer is far lower than what could be achieved through legal action, but I was willing to accept in the interests of preventing any escalation. Ther interesting thing is that their offer is exactly the market value of such an image. A small image for social media for such an audience size is licenced through Getty Images for £50. Is this further proof that they know what they’re doing, or merely a coincidence? I know my thoughts on the matter. My final communication was this:

I’m still waiting for the £50 to arrive in my account. This company clearly knew what they were doing and it makes me wonder just how many others are exploiting the good nature of photographers on social media who are happy to receive ‘exposure’ and ‘credit’ for their images when they discover retrospectively that their photos have been used to fulfil somebody’s marketing needs.

It’s nearly 2021 (which couldn’t come sooner!) and image theft is still taking place. As photographers and other creatives, we need to take action against any misuse of our images and know our rights. Copyright laws vary throughout the world but there’s one common trend – something we create is our intellectual property and any unauthorised use is something we can take legal action against. The fact that in this case I settled for the market value serves to demonstrate that our rights exist and these companies are aware of that. We should be in a position where image theft doesn’t happen, but until we reach that point we need to protect our work and our livelihood.

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