Photo Essay

Hey, that's mine !!

A JPG member recently asked what they could do to prevent someone from stealing their work if they displayed it on the internet, like on JPG. I thought I'd reprint my answer here for general consideration:

I am a copyright lawyer in Canada. Of course, I'm not qualified to give legal advice on U.S. law, and this should not be taken as legal advice, only commentary.

I can say, generally, that artists - particularly photographers and musicians, who use the internet a lot - worry too much about people stealing their work. This could be a long discussion, but I'll try to keep it short.

What harm is done if someone steals your work? Primarily, you lose money because they should have paid you and didn't. For a court to value your losses, you'll have to show that you have a reasonable expectation of selling your work (maybe a history of sales?), and be able to prove that your work has a certain value in the marketplace. Some jurisdictions also have "statutory damages" whereby you don't have to prove actual financial loss, but the court calculates damages in accordance with what the statute says. Either way, if your work is valuable, and someone infringes your copyright, you can sue them. (In the U.S., you can only sue if you have registered your copyright.) Then probably, after spending tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees, you'll be awarded damages, feel vindicated against the miscreant infringer, and resent your lawyer for charging you that much.

In a more common scenario, artists are still developing their careers and have not yet earned significant amounts from sales/licensing/etc of their work. In such a case, the artist might want to consider the positive value in someone stealing their work. It isn't nice. It isn't fair. But it's a good sign that at least someone values it. If they stole it for their private use, the artist hasn't lost very much financially. If they stole it and sold it, then there is an opportunity to see how the sales went. If the thief made a lot of money from selling the infringed work then the work now has a demonstrable value, and the artist will probably be very successful in an infringement action (lawsuit). If the thief stole it, tried to sell it, and couldn't - then the artist might want to take a hard look at how much damage has really been done. Probably got some free advertising in the process.

In short, litigation can be very expensive, especially in the U.S. It is also unpredictable, even if you think you're completely right. If someone infringes your work, and it is valuable, you can always sue (if it's a financially reasonable gamble to do so). The only way to guarantee that your work won't be infringed is to not display it in a place and in a way that it can be copied. But that might mean depriving yourself of the publicity, etc that displaying it, say, on the internet, would afford. Warning people about the law is pretty much useless. Warnings don't frighten off thieves. They do often annoy the innocent, who just want to look at the work and not read a bunch of threatening legal stuff or squint past a big honkin' watermark.

So I recommend not putting anything extremely valuable where someone can steal it. And don't worry too much about what happens to the work that you do display on the internet, because a "thief" might well be doing you as much good as harm.

Just my thoughts. You should always consult an experienced copyright lawyer if you have a business where copyrighted works are a significant asset.

Oh, and these pictures? They have no connection whatsoever with the words you've just read. They're just here. Available for you to look at and enjoy. And it's the internet, after all, right? So steal them. Go ahead. Make my day.

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24 responses

  • catharine amato

    catharine amato gave props (5 Jan 2011):

    yeah! good article and helpful......and now i'm wondering which one of these excellent images to steal first!

  • Marie Wilson

    Marie Wilson gave props (5 Jan 2011):

    Great essay and stunning photos!

  • Jim Robertson

    Jim Robertson gave props (6 Jan 2011):

    I think I'll steal the one with the blonde lady and red bag. (shhhh!) Great advice, Aaron!

  • Ruby Chuang

    Ruby Chuang gave props (9 Jan 2011):

    interesting thoughts :D

  • Jason Platt

    Jason Platt gave props (14 Jan 2011):

    what a great essay with room for thought. I do find huge signatures on photos annoying as it detracts from the work..

  • dp *

    dp * said (14 Jan 2011):

    Yes, very good info and common sense take on this situation. The internet really opened up exposure but the consequences are obvious. oh IMHO 99.9% of the stuff out there/here is not worth the effort to steal ... I'm just sayn'

  • John Linton

    John Linton gave props (14 Jan 2011):

    Hell YEAH! Rad!

  • John Linton

    John Linton said (14 Jan 2011):

    I could care less if someone takes my photos (even if they sell them) is a hobby for gives me something to do...

    I ran a contest once in which I offered to have a 20 page photo album made and mailed to anyone who could get the answer right. Not one person even tried (even though several people had asked if I was going to make a photo album). That told me all I needed to know about the "value" of my photos.

  • catharine amato

    catharine amato gave props (26 Jan 2011):

    Yes! to story of the week!

  • Diane Peterson

    Diane Peterson said (26 Jan 2011):

    Very interesting and knowledgeable article! my vote!

  • Prasanna Kundu

    Prasanna Kundu gave props (26 Jan 2011):

    This is Truly a Great piece of advice... a MUST PUBLISH!! Thanks Aaron!

  • Emanuela Franchini

    Emanuela Franchini said (27 Jan 2011):

    yeah indeed.

  • Jason Platt

    Jason Platt gave props (27 Jan 2011):

    you know I voted :)

  • Regenia Brabham

    Regenia Brabham gave props (1 Feb 2011):

    Great story! Great images. The state of Georgia says that an image is copyrighted the moment an artist creates it. The difference in the money you can sue someone for stealing that images comes in when you register the copyright. If it is not registered, you don't get as much. If it is registered, cha ching. 150,000 plus dollars! It is time consuming and up front cost are high but if you make your living doing photography, it is very frustrating having your work stolen.

  • Aaron Schwartz

    Aaron Schwartz said (19 Feb 2011):

    Thanks, Regenia, but some of your information is not quite accurate.

    It is true everywhere that copyright is created automatically upon creation of an artistic "work".

    Some general info about copyright registration requirements in different countries:

    A good starting place for general but accurate information about U.S. copyright law:

    Copyright laws are different in every country. They are the same in all parts of each country.

  • adniloj

    adniloj gave props (19 Feb 2011):

    this one gets a yipper + vote

  • William Garvey

    William Garvey gave props (13 Mar 2011):

    Very good advice. Thank you...

  • Scott Robertson

    Scott Robertson said (18 Apr 2011):

    Great article! This really puts things in to perspective being a fellow Canadian.

    Thank you!

  • Sonia Adam Murray

    Sonia Adam Murray gave props (21 May 2011):

    An absolutely fabulous story you have said it all and you are so right, the most important thing is that people like one's work whatever the consequences and as I am no brilliant artist period, who cares! Your captures are absolutely wonderful and worth stealing but I don't have the time to do that right now, maybe later (ha ha)! Needless to say, I voted my friend this should very definitely be published perhaps people will have a different perspective after its publication!

  • Deborah Downes

    Deborah Downes gave props (29 Jun 2011):

    Great commentary and wonderful images. Sure gets my vote.

  • Roxana Brivent-Barnes

    Roxana Brivent-Barnes said (1 Jul 2011):

    You made me laugh, voted!

  • The Man Who Isn't There

    The Man Who Isn't There (Deleted) gave props (15 Oct 2011):

    the "reasonable expectation of selling your work" is the key. most stuff I see around (including mine) is not even good for a church bulletin. Brilliant essay! Voted.

  • ! Mario Scattoloni ¡

    ! Mario Scattoloni ¡ gave props (16 May 2013):

    U made me cry...vot´d

  • Litz Go

    Litz Go said (20 May 2013):

    This is a great photo essay Aaron. Glad to have read it.

    There was this guy, I don't want to publish his name. Everyone loves him here at JPG because of his encouraging words and comments. I love the images he uploaded on his page. I even requested if he could send me one of his work for me to use as a screen saver. He gladly send it to me. I once nominated one of the images he posted. Must be the biggest mistake I have done for him. I think someone spotted it, send me a note and send me a link. The link show the same image taken by another photographer and was being sold as screen saver. Before I know it, his account was deleted and he vanished into thin air. I feel so sad because I lost a good friend/contact.

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