Thou Shalt Not Steal: There’s a Plagiarism Epidemic in the Photography Industry


Thou shalt not steal.

It’s one of the first things we learn as kids: don’t take something that doesn’t belong to you. And it’s a hard lesson to learn, for as children, we feel the entire world belongs to us. I learned this lesson the hard way. No, I didn’t shoplift…I stole little metal ashtrays from a Burger King in Panama City, Florida. I did it. I admit it.

I was 4 years old at the time and had just visited my first Burger King. It was an exotic place where the aroma of charbroiled hamburgers hung heavy in the air and the menu featured intriguing food items, like, The Whopper. At that time, restaurants had ashtrays on the tables. (Oh God, I sound like my grandma: “Back in those days, children, we traveled by horse and buggy and a penny was a lot of money.”)

burgerkingMaybe it was the smell of the burgers or the exquisite first taste of my dad’s Whopper that was responsible for my lack of judgement; or maybe it was just because I was four years old and didn’t know any better. Whatever the reason, I recall thinking that it was awfully nice of the Burger King people to give each table gifts in the form of little metal ashtrays, and so, I scoured the dining room, taking each of the empty ashtrays home with me.

(I feel it only right to point out that my mother was not with us at the time. I’m sure she’s looking down from heaven at this very moment and screaming, “Cheri! If I was there, this would never have happened. Tell them I was not there! Tell them I was not there!“)

Needless to say, when I returned home and my mother saw the Burger King ashtrays in my possession, she was horrified. We are all in trouble: me, for doing it; my father and brothers for allowing it to happen. And I learned a valuable lesson:

Don’t take things that don’t belong to you.

It seems there’s a whole lot of people in the photography industry who have yet to learn this lesson.

Acts of plagiarism are tearing through our industry at an astounding pace. Image theft is HUGE and, to be honest, it’s kind of bewildering. With websites such as Tineye and Google’s Image Search, anyone can easily check on images to gauge ownership.

TinEye (left) and Google Image Search (right)

TinEye (left) and Google Image Search (right)

Of course, nothing is 100% reliable, but still, with as easy as it is to run a search, you have to be a special kind of stupid to steal someone’s images and post them as your own online. (Yes, I said “stupid,” because really…)

And when exposed, the excuses are as clever and creative as the images stolen:

“It was the web designer’s fault; I had no idea.” 

“I only posted them as ‘inspiration;’ I never said they were mine.” 

“I had them as a place-holder and forgot to remove them.” 

“I’m just starting out and thought these would show people what my work WILL look like.”

Now, with as prevalent as online image theft has become, we in the photography industry often overlook another kind of theft; a crime not of images or pixels, but of words. We get so caught up, and rightly so, in the pursuit of illegally used images that we forget that there is an equal, if not greater, number of photographers stealing words. Whole articles, even.

typingYes, these Masters of the Copy and Paste are filling up blogs and Facebook statuses with stolen work so frequently that their keyboards should just contain the keys [C] and [V].

Sometimes the articles are copied in their entirety, but more often than not, personal information is added to the copied article in an attempt to make it seem as though it is an original.

This is much the same way I cook to impress my friends: frozen mac-n-cheese topped with homemade breadcrumbs. It appears, at first glance, that the meal was made from scratch, when really it was the work of Stouffer’s or whatever brand was on sale at the grocery store.

Luckily, as with images, text is an easy thing to verify. Copyscape is one of the best online sources to check if content is unique and original. Simply plug in the url associated with your writing and BOOM! The copycats are outed.

And no one is immune from this kind of behavior. I get how easily one can fall into the trap of using illegal photos and text. You’re busy, you feel as though your schedule or ability makes it impossible to convey what you’d like to say to your clients/fans/followers so you find an article that echoes your sentiments, add a few personal touches and post it as your own. Do it long enough, and you probably forget you’re even doing it.

robberAnd to be fair, I realize that not everyone writes his or her own content. I know that there are many who hire writers to regularly update their social media sites and I realize that not all writers have scruples. Some companies lacking in ethics will accept a check and give plagiarized material in return. And that’s an unfortunate thing. When discovered, it involves removing all the questionable work and apology to the readers. At least, I hope that’s what one would do.

Now, I don’t like pointing this out. Plagiarism and theft is an unhappy, uncomfortable subject that also happens to be the huge elephant in the room. We all KNOW it’s happening within our beloved industry, from newbies to well-known names, but few want to go the distance and expose those who are doing the stealing.

That’s where websites like Photo Stealers comes in handy. Readers are free to send in their submissions to be checked and verified before being acknowledged on the site. Links are given to the original source and due credit given the artists/authors. Think of it like a “Scared Straight” for troubled photographers.

There is no one answer to this problem; I realize that. At the end of the day, the best thing we can do for ourselves and our industry is to exercise creativity, do the best we can with what we have, and stand up against wrongdoing.

And yes, if you’re wondering, I DID take back those ashtrays.

Image credit: Crackers by elhombredenegro, Burger King by balachandar, Annette + Powerbook + Teh Interwebz by r3v || cls, Burglar Bill at large by f4niko

  • Vin Weathermon

    What a lovely person you must be.

  • Thomas Lawn

    Just because it’s prevalent doesn’t make it okay. It’s like assuming using the N-word because, “popular usage has changed it’s meaning to be synonymous with ‘homeboy’ or ‘buddy.'” Even if it is more accepted in certain circumstances doesn’t make it any less illegal (or in the case of our example, offensive).

  • Brian MacLochlainn

    not lovely, not sour, not grumpy; but also not an idiot. Giving away stuff for free only gets people wanting more free stuff, unless you have a well thought out marketing strategy (which freebies can be a part off) then hoping people steal your work is an idiotic approach to your career.

    Vin I would read my first reply to you again, I do not think it is anyway insulting to you, it is insulting to the practise in which you intend to engage

  • Vin Weathermon

    Please reconsider reading what I said. LEAVE MY WATERMARK ON THEM (the photos). I lose nothing by having my watermarked advertising on peoples’ desktop, facebook or whatever. In fact, that is part of my marketing. I can appreciate that you do wonderful architectures and landscapes, and perhaps this approach would not work for you, but I deal in portraiture. These are short-lived, personal to the client and if they want to brag with my watermark that is just fantastic. Perhaps you are reacting from where you are today. Do you have a day job like most artists? Or are you having stellar success these days? Most pros I know are not doing anything close to what they did five years ago. And they have other ways to fill the gap that the “everybody is a photographer” has given.

    The topic of ripping off peoples imagery for the purpose of lying to potential clients is well-founded. I agree it is despicable and anyone who does this should feel like garroting themselves.

    But calling me names because you don’t understand me isn’t “smart”.

  • armorfoto

    If someone breaks the window of my car and takes my wallet, that’s stealing. If I leave my wallet out on a table unattended under a sign that says “Guard your property- thefts have been reported in the area” and someone takes it, it’s still stealing, but it’s also something else. We leave our wallets out on the table, unattended, in a high-theft area whenever we post anything online. And this doesn’t even begin to address the fiascos caused by “terms of service” that everybody agrees to but nobody ever reads. The web has made displaying and sharing our words and photographs with millions of viewers wonderfully simple. It has also made wrongful use of that content by others, however malevolent or innocent, wonderfully simple. Understanding that the same way we understand all the other risks we face each day, each of us needs to do a cost/benefit analysis and decide how comfortable we are with the risks of sharing our work online, and then proceed accordingly. For some, it may simply come down to the cost of doing business.

  • Brian MacLochlainn

    Saying that an action you engage in is idiotic and calling you an idiot are actually two different things. I can say wit a great degree of certainty that at some point in my life I have acted in an idiotic manner and with a similar degree of certainty I would like to think that that does not mean I am an idiot.

    “I wish everyone, particularly in my city, would steal my pictures but leave my watermark”,,,, If you do were to do a portrait shoot and post the images on your face book page then tag the clients in the pictures or if they were to post the images and tag you then I could see the benefit assuming they paid you for the shoot but used the images in a way that you did not take payment for…. to me this would seem to be a logical marketing If on the other hand they said nothing for the shoot, “stole” the images as shared them then there is no logic to this marketing plane

  • Vin Weathermon

    Brian you have successfully made me wish I had not bothered reading this post, spending the time to comment or deal with your single minded argument. You “win”.

  • Brian MacLochlainn

    ah the joys of editing video…. every time I have to export the file or upload it I have to stop working for a bit and get to come back here and argue some :) don’t take it so personally , have a beer or a glass of wine

  • t k

    Complete recreation or parody I have less of a problem with that as long as none of it was copied form the original source.

  • Dave

    It is not an issue whether you have a problem with it. If the intellectual material is not different enough, the law recognizes copyright infringement. That is the main problem. Too many people think it is ok to rob the artistic vision and hard work of past successful projects. And as I said, the inception/reception knockoff lifted the actual artwork from the original source. Illegal and unethical.

  • Ballookey Klugeypop

    RTFA: It’s not so much about a rogue photo in a blog post or Facebook status, although I’d like to see those get attribution at least, if not ask permission first! (and it seriously disgruntles me to see such things tearing up the Internet without attribution, all over Pinterest and Tumblr)

    But, if you follow the link to Photostealers, it’s about people setting up shop as photographers, but using all sorts of *other* photographers’ work in their portfolio with absolutely no indication that it’s not their work. It is epidemic. And some of them have blogs as part of their site where they steal articles from legitimate photography bloggers, or they rip off a photographer’s “About” page text and post it as their own with little to no modification.

  • Emory L

    When large companies like Samsung plagiarize, it’s clearly a huge problem.

  • Chaos01

    Your example was not too extreme. It shows what would happen if we applied the poster’s criteria (frequency of occurrence) to its fullest logical extent.

  • rhonda hurwitz

    My marketing agency found a photo online that we wanted to license for a client, so my task was to locate the source.

    Problem is, It was reblogged on Pinterest and Tumblr so many times without attribution, it was impossible to track down. Google image search was no help.

    2 issues: first, there is a photographer somewhere who could have seen a payday, and didn’t. Second, we ended up using a stock photo that had much less impact.

    Not sure what the advice for photographers is … but I sure wish the culture would embrace sharing with attribution and permission, and I wish that there was some sort of tag that traveled with the original image that always pointed back to the source.

  • C Sab

    No, it’s stealing. The only ones who believe it isn’t, are the ones doing it.