Copyright Controversy After Appropriated Photo Used to Win Art Contest


In the two photographs above, the bottom image is a photo-manipulation created using the top image. Are they completely separate works of art? What if we told you the second photo was created without the original photographer’s permission and submitted to a contest as an original artwork? What if we told you it actually won?

That all actually happened last year, and the images are at the center of a copyright skirmish.

First, some background: BMW MINI Cooper has been running a marketing campaign based around art contests. Visit the website MINI Space, and you’ll find regularly held contests with tens of thousands of submissions and valuable prizes given to the winners.

For a recent contest based on the theme “Check-mate,” 23-year-old Frenchman Romain Sarkal Eloy submitted this photograph:


Titled PapilioChessBoard, the photo won 1st place in the contest and earned Eloy a new MacBook Pro laptop.

Here’s what the contest said in announcing the winner:

We were mesmerized by the attention to detail displayed in Romain Eloy’s checkered insect. It blends excellent macro photography with sophisticated digital rendering to create a stylized image that blurs the line between the real and surreal.

What the announcement and the original description didn’t say, however, was that the image was a Photoshopped version of this photograph by photographer Kevin Collins:


Collins was never contacted for permission, and he never allowed his photo to be manipulated and published without attribution — much less as an entry in a contest. (He did Creative Commons license the photo, but required that any use carry attribution).

What’s more, each of the contest comes with guidelines that state, “Your submission must be 100% original work.”

We hear that the contest was contacted by the second place winner regarding the violation. Their response was that the photo was not a violation of the rules or copyright due to the fact that it was “manipulated enough” to qualify as original artwork.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the original and the “new artwork,” just to give you an idea of the extent of the manipulation:


At what point does a photograph become Photoshopped enough to qualify as “100% original work,” and as something separate from what the original photographer created? Is this enough?

Update: Here’s a quote from the response the second place winner received from Minispace after multiple emails over a number of months:

“[Eloy] digitally manipulated it enough – wittily retouching the moth’s spots into checkers – for it to classify as his own artwork, and for us to select it as first-place winner. Eloy’s work is not in breach of any copyright infringement laws and as such, we will not be making any changes to our winners selection and/or allocation of prizes.”

Photographer Kevin Collins tells us,

When I release photos with Creative Commons licenses, I have the intent of helping out students, scientists, and nonprofits … giving them detailed images to use on posters, websites, research papers, etc.

I’ve never had the intent of helping a thief and rule-breaker win a MacBook Pro from a company that turns a blind eye to copyleft violations.

Update: The contest has taken action regarding this case. Here’s what the MINI Space Team told us via email:

Regarding the MINI Space “Checkmate!” design competition, it has been brought to our attention that the 1st place winning entry violated the competition rules. We have since taken the concerns of our community seriously and looked into the matter in thorough detail.

We are excluding the winning entry retroactively from the competition.

Thanks for sending in the tip, Steve!

  • Travis

    One of the best sniff tests for plagiarized art vs. “paying homage” is the popularity of the original work. If I did a photo-manipulation of the Abby Road cover and put awkward walruses in suits on that crosswalk, I could argue homage. But if I took art from a relatively unknown photographer tweaked it a bit and called it my own, that is plagiarism. Also, the walruses example might fall under parody, which allows for this sort of thing. The manipulation of Kevin’s photo was clearly NOT parody. Honestly, without a side by side comparison, an untrained observer would not even realize that the moth was photoshopped to look like a checkerboard. They would just assume the photo was taken with the “natural” checkerboard in mind, implying a 100% original work, which it clearly is not.

  • Attila Volgyi

    The photo contest site says the retouched moth photo has been disqualified 2 days after this article was published – it is worth to include in the update! Media attention did make a change!

  • Attila Volgyi

    To alter an image AT ALL you need the permission of the author and even if you change 99% of that image you need to display the original author of your derivative work…

  • zehawk

    That’s not correct. There are many cc licensing possible. I allow commercial use with no derivatives and attribution for instance.

  • bob cooley

    Right, but that’s my point – under ALL CC licenses, the photographer still is the designator of the rights given. I think you mis-understood my comment; I was rebutting to Jim that commercial use, even with attribution is not allowed in this case (I read the creators CC license, he does not allow for commercial use). Yes, CC is very flexible and allows for commercial distribution as the creator sees fit – I was referring to this specific license.

  • zehawk

    Thats a strange comment, hows exactly is CC a dilution of copyright?? On the contrary, its the perfect vehicle for standardization of licensing terms while retaining copyright. With the most brief terminology one can indicate standard licensing terms, instead of writing gadzillion pages of verbose text, not to mention having to invent that text in the first place.

  • zehawk

    Well, I read somewhere that the “winner” took the photo from wikipedia. The licensing terms of that image on wikipedia (/by-sa) allow derivatives and commercial usage.

  • bob cooley

    Did you read the author’s quote about the license? “When I release photos with Creative Commons licenses, I have the intent
    of helping out students, scientists, and nonprofits … giving them
    detailed images to use on posters, websites, research papers, etc.”

  • zehawk

    Yes I did. If that was his intent, then he should not have used by-sa, he should have used a license that prevented commercial use (by-nc-sa). I’m not sure how you are arguing that commercial use was not permitted when clearly the license terms do permit the same.

    Further, this article is also incorrect when it says “Collins …never allowed his photo to be manipulated”. Again one only need to look at the licensing terms to know that derivatives are happily allowed.

    Note that I’m not arguing that there was no misuse of the photo. The photo should have been disqualified from the contest since it was not original, and the “winner” violated the license terms by not attributing.

  • rexfader

    Did he return the macbook pro? :)

  • Ellen

    Why does the contest holder have a download button to allow others to download photo submissions for their contest? This is just plain wrong…