PetaPixel

Some Thoughts on Having Photographs Go Viral on the Internet

viral

Over the last week or so, my series ‘Amazon Unpacked‘ has gone viral. The photographs were made to accompany an article researched and written for the Financial Times Weekend Magazine by Sarah O’Connor. The magazine came out at the start of February, and I put the gallery up on my website a week later.

The viral spread was kicked off about a week ago, with a feature on It’s Nice That. Next, it showed up on the Phaidon homepage; Phaidon also featured it on their subscriber mailout, and before too long the photographs were on all manner of blogs: HighSnobiety, Juxtapoz, Fubiz, Brainstorm9 and countless other blogs, Facebook pages and Tumblr sites..

Above are some screenshots of some of the websites that reproduced my ‘Amazon Unpacked’ photographs.

A photo from the series. "The interior of Amazon’s giant fulfilment centre is the size of nine football pitches. The efficiency of these warehouses is what enables Amazon to put parcels on customers’ doorsteps so quickly."

A photo from the series. “The interior of Amazon’s giant fulfilment centre is the size of nine football pitches. The efficiency of these warehouses is what enables Amazon to put parcels on customers’ doorsteps so quickly.”

Now I’m no stranger to this phenomenon. It’s happened to some of my other photographs and features. “So what”, I hear you asking, “is the point of this blog post?”

Well I guess I just want to raise a few issues and ask some questions about this kind of appropriation, and how this practice affects the content creator. Here goes…

First of all, a quick list of things that concern me:

  1. None of the blogs in question (not a single one) thought to contact me before taking my photographs and publishing them under their own branding.
  2. All of the blogs then proceeded to post some of my photographs on Facebook, and we all know what Facebook’s terms are like for photographers.
  3. Most of the blogs published 8-12 of my images from a set of 13, reducing the need for their audience to seek out the original article on the FT or on my website.
  4. All of the blogs are effectively commercial ventures, with employees. Some of them are owned by media agencies or publishing companies.
  5. The vast reproduction of my images across the Internet has most likely reduced my syndication chances massively, taking away the potential for future income from these photographs.
A photo from the series. "Amazon employees are labelled as 'associates' by the corporation. 'Pickers' push trolleys around and pick out customers’ orders from the aisles. They might each walk between 7 and 15 miles as part of their daily shift."

A photo from the series. “Amazon employees are labelled as ‘associates’ by the corporation. ‘Pickers’ push trolleys around and pick out customers’ orders from the aisles. They might each walk between 7 and 15 miles as part of their daily shift.”

Second up, the positives:

  1. All of the blogs were careful to attribute the photographs correctly and provide links back to my website. I had to contact It’s Nice That and request that they also credit Sarah O’Connor from the FT. Most subsequent blogs did the same, suggesting that the ‘source’ of the viral sets the tone for how it is then presented.
  2. There is no doubt that it has spread my name over a far wider range of viewers than I could ever hope to reach myself. To a certain extent this is good; however its hard to know whether there will be long term benefits from this.

    Also, while it’s great that the photographs are being seen, by being so removed from the original article, they have become more like eye candy as opposed to being inextricably linked to Sarah O’Connors excellent contextual article. This is a shame.

A photo from the series. "In their bright orange vests, 'pickers' deliver goods between various areas of the warehouse. Britain’s economists are puzzled over why the economy remains moribund even though more and more people are in work. There are still about half a million fewer people working as full-time employees than there were before the 2008 crash, but the number of people in some sort of employment has surpassed the previous peak. Economists think the rise in insecure temporary, self-employed and part-time work, while a testament to the British labour market’s flexibility, helps to explain why economic growth remains elusive."

A photo from the series. “In their bright orange vests, ‘pickers’ deliver goods between various areas of the warehouse. Britain’s economists are puzzled over why the economy remains moribund even though more and more people are in work. There are still about half a million fewer people working as full-time employees than there were before the 2008 crash, but the number of people in some sort of employment has surpassed the previous peak. Economists think the rise in insecure temporary, self-employed and part-time work, while a testament to the British labour market’s flexibility, helps to explain why economic growth remains elusive.”

So… I guess this blog post sits somewhere on the fence; it’s an attempt to try to understand how ‘new media’ works, and what is right or wrong.

I’ve got no doubt that the editors of these blogs have good intentions — while the bottom line is maintaining traffic to their own platforms, they are fans of the content that they appropriate and genuinely believe that the exposure that they bring to the artists featured is of great benefit.

This isn’t without truth, but I think that for photographers at least, things could be done better. Maybe I am an idealist or delusional, but here’s what I would like to happen:

  1. Blog author/editor contacts me and asks to feature my photographs.
  2. I say yes, and we agree on 2-3 images being used, with contextual captions, correct attribution, and links to the original features.
  3. Everyone’s happy. They get their feature and eye candy, making sure that traffic remains high to their website and their advertising revenue is secure. I get widespread ‘exposure’ and traffic to my website, yet I still retain some exclusive content meaning the feature still has some value for resale.

Finally, a big question: in the age of sharing and the viral nature of the Internet, where does one draw the line between ‘fair use’ and ‘theft’?

To conclude, when it comes to this kind of blog feature, somewhere down the middle would work for me. The only one of the aforementioned blogs who really got things right was Phaidon – they used 4 images, did their research about me and my work, provided extensive link backs to the source material, and even talked about the context and content of the images.

Perhaps it’s because they are an ‘old school’ publishing house who have retained some traditional journalistic values to accompany their more contemporary front of house? They still didn’t contact me first though!

Anyway, this is all food for thought. I’d be interested to hear of other peoples experiences; how you have dealt with similar situations?


About the author: Ben Roberts is a photographer based in West London, UK. Visit his website here. This article originally appeared here.


 
  • http://twitter.com/benrobertsphoto Ben Roberts

    btw Dave, I just did another assignment for the FT that was based in Liverpool. It comes out next weekend (3rd may) although judging by your avatar I am not sure you will approve of the subject… ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/intensitystudio Antonio Carrasco

    dude, that sounds so easy when you describe it like that…

    But it is REALLY expensive and time consuming to file lawsuits, get them through the court system, maybe win a judgment and then try to collect that judgment.

    Best possible scenario would be that the defendants offer a quick settlment to make the whole thing go away.

  • http://twitter.com/intensitystudio Antonio Carrasco

    UGH… spoken like a true noob.

    The whole “exposure” thing becomes a neverending cycle of just getting “exposure” but never ever ever actually earning in a money. Trust me on that.

    Much better to get a check for $2000 than 2000 likes on Facebook.

  • http://twitter.com/intensitystudio Antonio Carrasco

    Kiddo, you can get “exposure” AND get paid too. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, the jobs where I have gotten paid often get me much more exposure than some work-for-free scheme where they are promising “exposure” but no pay.

    A company that actually has money probably already has some degree of visibility.

  • http://twitter.com/intensitystudio Antonio Carrasco

    Unfortunately its a matter of public perception. The kids these days, they have no concept of intellectual property or rights. They see it on their computer screen and think it’s theirs to do what they feel.

    And when you try to contact these people who are ripping off your material, more often than not, everyone thinks you’re the bad guy. They don’t even want to hear it. See Metallica vs. Napster

  • http://profiles.google.com/ksuwildkat Rob S

    You are describing civil society and rule of law. Why do doors have lock? To keep an honest man honest. The problem at the societal level is that unless “content thieves” are branded thieves and punished – both legally and by society – there is no cost to the cost benefit equation.
    As for movie piracy – its called Netflix.

  • http://profiles.google.com/ksuwildkat Rob S

    What he is describing is so far from fair use it should not even be part of the debate. From the US Copyright Office in determining fair use:

    The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes

    The nature of the copyrighted work

    The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole

    The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

    The distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular case will not always be clear or easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

    1 – It was commercial. The vast majority of the time that ends any debate.

    2 – The nature of the Copyrighted work. In this case they were photos for a story in an ad supported publication. The infringement was by ad supported publications. Again clear cut.

    3 – Each of the images was used in complete form. 100%. Do not get distracted by the 8 of 12.

    4 – The effect was to devalue the images.

    Now how about an example of fair use? Lets say one of the images was taken with a unique camera or using a unique process. Lets say a camera review site used a pixel level portion of the image to demonstrate the difference between this unique camera and a normal one.

    1 – Its commercial
    2 – The original image illustrated a story. The use by the review site illustrated a technical aspect of the image.
    3 – The review site used a tiny portion of the image that does not resemble the copyrighted work. In fact at the pixel level it is a completely different image.
    4 – Examining the technical details of an image removes no value from the ability to market and sell the original.

    That is fair use. That is not what happened in this case. What happened was theft and no one has the “right” to be a thief.

    As for my “pretend” scenario, in the eyes of the law there is no difference between a digital image and a physical car. Both are property crimes.

  • http://profiles.google.com/ksuwildkat Rob S

    Humor ISO set to high

  • Kokoro Kimochi

    On my photography site I have provided alternative versions of my pictures which adds the camera equipment used and taken date to the bottom of pictures aswell as my website address so that if anyone wants to use my pictures on other sites and social networks then they can direct link to those pictures….. but no-one ever has.

  • http://profiles.google.com/ksuwildkat Rob S

    Interesting choice of case when a much more relevant one was available:

    Los Angeles Times v. Free Republic, 54 U.S.P.Q.2D 1453 (C.D. Cal. 2000)

    Conclusion: The bulletin board’s use of the newspaper articles was deemed not to be fair use. This case offers a bit of caution about the difference between allowing public access to materials, as opposed to restricting access. Granting public access to entire works is much more difficult to justify as fair use.

    And speaking of little knowledge – it would make absolutely no difference if the images had been unpublished before being used without permission.

  • http://profiles.google.com/ksuwildkat Rob S

    Remember that Disney didnt start with piles of cash. They got piles of cash by not letting anyone rip them off.

    I use a service – sorry you will need to google – where i upload my images that I have set into the wild (flickr, website, etc) and images I have licensed for sale (stock). For lack of a better description the service runs constant reverse image searches on all uploaded images. If they find one being used they contact me to find out if I authorized it. If not they seek payment and take a percentage. Most of the time a simple invoice is enough for a “you caught me” and quick payment. I have one image that has entered the “bring in the lawyers” stage.

    BTW – one of the key tests when seeking damages is how you responded to unauthorized use in the past. If you have let unauthorized use go in the past you will have a much harder time receiving any damages and almost no chance of punitive damages. I found a very nice non-profit using one of my images without permission. I sent them an invoice and a cease and desist. I also sent them an email encouraging them to ASK for a license to use the image. They did and I granted them permission to use it at no charge. I also sent them an invoice for the full amount and then zeroed out the bill as a donation to their cause.

    They got the image they wanted.
    I protected my property.
    I maintained the VALUE of my property.
    I got a nice tax write off.

    Win – Win

  • http://profiles.google.com/ksuwildkat Rob S

    I have yet to have a “kid” try to rip me off. Corporations, yup. Kids, nope.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ballookey Ballookey Klugeypop

    I really hate when I see a blog re-post so much of the original material that there’s no point in going to the source for more.

    In fact two of my favorite websites only post text with a link. In both cases, the text is very brief, but enticing, sparking the curiosity of the reader while allowing the original source to maintain 100% control of their own content.

    Then again, I suppose it’s a harder thing to do, to build a name for oneself as a respected place to find links to interesting things, than to make a name for oneself as a destination to see the things.

  • PhotoPerson

    I work with media/content creators who came of age through pirating and will continue to do so. Piracy is how they had access to both software and works that served as educational and inspirational resources. If they want to print your photos and hang them up on their wall at home or on their blog, they will. They can take a copy of one of my works and filter it and collage it and that’s not something I have any power to control. I’m not saying they aren’t honest people, I’m saying their understanding of art work is far different than yours and maybe even mine. This is a fact. This is a group of people that already exist. Future generations of bloggers/artists/media mixers and mashers, they’re all going to do the same thing. It’s not about honesty, it’s about making sense of a “sharing” culture.

    We teach mash-up classes and show students how use video download helpers and how to pull images out of source code. I’m not placing a moral value on these actions, but this is where we’re at. We’re creating new ideas from images created by someone we may never meet, speak to or ask permission from.

    When an individual views a website they’re downloading it to their computer. A copy of that website is temporarily saved. That means when I see your photo from this article on my screen, I already have it. We need to establish new rules for digital works.

    Netflix…

    Netflix is not a solution that offers individuals high quality movies they can watch in the privacy of their own home without an internet connection.

  • http://twitter.com/HenryStradford Henry Stradford

    A fool and his photos shall soon part :) Naive was the best word I read in the posts below.

  • getoverit

    boo hoo. cry some more

  • jing quek

    I’ve got a suggestion: Youtube implemented a system where it detects when somebody uses a copyrighted song for a video. Youtube then puts an ad on top of that video if there are enough views (I think), and royalties from the ad revenue goes to the copyright owner of the song.

    photos are a whole different ball game but if there’s a common server like a Flickr which has agreements with the ad space sellers like Google, which then traces where images are used, and charges a portion of the ad income derived from the number of visitors and hits to that page.

  • http://www.johndunnephotography.com/ John Dunne

    Great article Ben, and while I have no answers for you I do, at least, share all the same questions.

  • http://twitter.com/adamgasson Adam Gasson

    Spiro the photographer is based in the UK, the publication is based in the UK and there is no ‘fair use’ under UK copyright law. Fair use is a legal concept from the United States and has no relevance to a photographer working in the UK (for what it’s worth the US Copyright Office clearly states that you should get permission from the copyright holder before proceeding anyway – which many did not do). You can’t just pick any law from any country and use that as a defence.

  • http://twitter.com/adamgasson Adam Gasson

    Good article Ben, nice to read something that’s level headed. It’s a real shame that not a single blog asked for permission before posting the images. There is a terrible page-view dominant culture that seems to be post first and hope no one asks questions later so I’m glad that they’ve now linked back to yourself and the FT article.

    For what it’s worth, and for the comments from the USA, there is no ‘fair use’ under UK copyright law. Ben is a UK based photographer working for a UK based publication so that fact that a law somewhere else in the world *might* provide a loophole to publish copyright work is irrelevant. The US Copyright Office also clearly states that you should contact copyright owners before use – something that didn’t happen here. Given that arguing this is ‘fair use’ is plainly ridiculous.

  • Luxury Car Owner

    Fair use: Suppose that I bought a new luxury red car, in small town. Inmediatly a red luxury car will take the attention of the people. Some of the first people in notice it, will tell to their friends and relatives, that I bought a red luxury car. Then, they will share the word with some other people, and so on. So, finally everyone in the small town will know that Im the owner of the new luxury red car but no one of they have stole my car, or made a bad use of the car, because they are only sharing the fact, spread the word.

    Unfair use: bought new car, everyone in my street notice it, one of the neighbor stole it, use it and after that, sold it.

  • http://www.bobcooleyphoto.com/ bob cooley

    Its not theft, its copyright infringement – which is still illegal. Fair use is very specific doctrine of exemptions, but none of these uses fall under the conditions for Fair Use.

  • http://www.bobcooleyphoto.com/ bob cooley

    The “The law hasn’t caught up with the internet” argument is fallacious, and overused. The net is just another publishing tool, it’s a powerful and distributive tool, but this doesn’t mitigate the responsibility for those who choose to use it – that’s the tail wagging the dog, legally speaking. Merely leaving my house unlocked does not allow strangers the right to come and sleep on my couch. The burden of responsibility does not weigh on the owner of the work (or house in my analogy), but on those who want to use my work (or house). Permission is a legal requirement.

  • http://www.bobcooleyphoto.com/ bob cooley

    In most cases, the articles are republished with the authors’ permission, in cases where it is an examination of an issue or commentary around the use of a photo (for example, discussions about media misappropriation of facebook images), the articles are an exploration and commentary of the mis-use of said image, and then falls under the fair use doctrine (one of the few examples where this is actually a proper application of that doctrine).

  • http://www.bobcooleyphoto.com/ bob cooley

    It will likely be overturned on the next appeal – there is already a ton of case-law that is in contradiction of this case.

  • http://twitter.com/algia10 A.G. Photography

    This scenario would happen less and less if “everyone” with a camera, and aspirations of becoming a pro, would educate oneself, and their friends, and specify clearly on their websites what the terms are to use their images. Define a proper license.
    Licensing:
    http://asmp.org/tutorials/what-license.html#.UYGeM4LudzY

    If more people would post this information along with their photos, we might be able to see some common sense return, and respect for the very profession everyone wants to be part off so badly.

    Anything you post online or give out becomes content for someone’s blog, website, product etc., they make money and you don’t. Smarten up.

  • http://twitter.com/spirobolos Spiro Bolos

    Of course each country has its own copyright laws. But it is a myth that fair use (in the USA) ALWAYS necessitates the need for permission. Look at Prince v Cariou. No permission needed: http://tushnet.blogspot.com/2013/04/transformativeness-doesnt-require.html