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

  • Sareke

    Ok then.

  • Al Borrelli
  • AndrewKeen

    Petapixel’s gone Luddite? Really? Mad about photos in blog posts and Facebook statuses? This war was lost 10 years ago. It’s not stealing. It’s the way things work today. This is a disgustingly ignorant post. Get a life.

  • Zos Xavius

    What can you do about it really? Asides from lawyering up and going after the people with actual money they can lose, you might as well beat your head against the wall. The whole industry has forever changed. Your work can and will used without attribution in all sorts of places with little to no legal recourse. The best you can do is file DMCA requests and then start spending your own money on legal advice when that almost certainly fails. Facebook will remove offending material if you bug them about it, but even then there are countless “like” factories that just spam a collection of images they downloaded from places like 500px and flickr and stripped the watermarks. Then you have the countless photographers that upload everything with creative commons licensing so it is now becoming an almost industry norm to just find some image online and download it and use it. With idiots throwing up full resolution files, you can even find some quality stock imagery for nothing.

    That’s the real elephant in the room. The fact that everyone and anyone can go and spend even a few hundred dollars on a used DSLR and is now a “Pro” fauxtographer. Then some of them get good and never realize that what they are doing actually has some (or at least had) value. The new form of payment is “credit.” You get “credit.” That’s great right? We all want recognition. Who doesn’t? Unfortunately there are scores of people that are willing to work for credit under the false assumption that it will lead to some sort of profitability. In reality, they are just eroding their own market and reducing the value of everyone’s work.

    Is anyone really surprised that newspapers are firing their photography staff and starting to look at crowdsourcing imagery or using reporters with iphones? Because in reality, for the average newspaper headshot, and iphone is probably just fine when they only get printed in a 3″x2″ space. Newspapers are increasingly relying on freelancers as well. Its all draining away the bottom line and reducing the value of photography very quickly towards 0.

    You want to know where photography is thriving? Weddings. Too bad I never did like shooting them…….

    edit: as an example of my earlier point a friend recently had some of his photographs stripped of their watermark and posted to the dirty. Repeated attempts to have them taken down have resulted in total silence. Does he have the money to buy a lawyer to deal with that? Not really. Though you could probably make a career suing people for breaking copyright if you were a photographer that had some recognition and a few have…..

  • Zos Xavius

    But that kind of attitude has made something that was before very much not ok now suddenly totally cool. So go ahead and declare the war lost. There are some are still willing to fight to protect their own copyrights and work, which the law allows for I might add. And it *is* stealing by the way. Just because everyone’s doing it doesn’t suddenly make it ok.

  • Sharon Yocum

    As a photographer who makes her own inspirational posters, I really know the frustration of having y work stolen. I wish there were more ethically minded people in the world.

  • Fastball Photography

    Some of the major offenders are the news agencies, tv stations and other media outlets. They claim Fair Use, do not give photo credits and refuse to pay for the use of any photo they can snag off the internet.

  • gochugogi

    “At that time, restaurants had ashtrays on the tables.”

    Yes, fond memories indeed. When I was in college each desk had a tuna can with a dent for your cigarette. And classes were a big smoke out from the professor to the students. I recall in jazz band rehearsals the director used to exhale through his sax! And plagiarism was stealing your roommates term paper from last semester. It’s all so easy now. Except for smoking…

  • peaceetc

    Just because people do it, doesn’t even come close to making it right. People aren’t upset because photos and words are included, they are upset because of the stolen images and words. There is a huge difference. Especially when the likes of Doug Gordon uses stolen posts and quotes and claims credit and all the praise which comes with them. The guy’s a fraud, he’s made money off it, and there are plenty more just like him.

    This isn’t about the random person on Facebook posting some inspirational junk. It’s about those who uses others’ work illegally to make money.

    It is stealing. It’s not ignorant to think so. Your insults will do nothing to change that fact.

  • Vin Weathermon

    Yes, it is presumed by the many who are ignorant of the copyright laws that taking a work and calling it your own is wrong, particularly wrong if it takes money off the photographer’s table. I had a prospect call me and say he really loved a landscape of mine and wanted to “buy it”. Not a framed print, but the file. I asked him the price depended on how it was to be used (advertising, wall art at home, etc.) He said that he was going to use it on his website and flyers. I gave him a price around $200 since I would be providing a high resolution original image. He said that was a ridiculous price (he was thinking like $5) since all images are free on Google Images! This is how the majority of people under 40 think. They don’t know that copying someone’s copyrighted work is stealing. Look at the responses to this article “it’s the way it is today”. Yes, there is more thievery than ever That does not make it right. The minimum should be credit for the work if used in news, and permission to use in any case.

  • Dave

    A little irony here: A Petapixel story just a few post down shows a photographer that mimics movie posters for his event photography. In most cases the intellectual property was plagiarized, but in at least one (the Inception knockoff) the actual photography/digital imagery was stolen.

  • SpaceMan

    BOOM! Nice detective work there

  • Zos Xavius

    $200 is a ridiculous price! Ridiculously low for the intended use! This is exactly my point that I made above. The perceived value of photography approaches zero. You should have responded with “Are your brochures free to print? Your website costs nothing to produce? Oh? Why not?”

  • Zos Xavius

    I’m curious what your posters look like. Do you have a link? And no, I won’t steal them! I promise. ;)

  • samfeinstein

    AndrewKeen, I am surprised to see you reading an article on petapixel, because with your attitude about image theft, you are obviously not a photographer.

    Human trafficking is at an all time high, so that must be just fine with you, too.

  • samfeinstein

    It’s one thing for someone to “share” a photo on Facebook. Even that’s not right, in my opinion, without asking the owner of the image, but most who post on Facebook are careful not to post anything of value.

    It is completely another thing to sit on the throne as a respected guru in the photography industry, representing your time as being worth $5,000 a day, and post stolen images and quotations and articles and even so-called biographically information, day after day, month after month, and even year after year.

    When images are posted and represented as your own when you are trying to attract people to your workshops or mentoring sessions, that constitutes a commercial use for which no proper license fee was paid. I wonder what the new “King of Plagiarizers” would do if someone stole his images to use for their own promotion. I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count.

    This article is right on the money.

  • Markus WET

    “And no one is immune from this kind of behavior.” … well, if you’re not completely dumb and/or ignorant you are immune! Don’t upload anything you did not shoot/write/create.

    It’s really simple …

  • Gord

    Yeah, I don’t agree with AndrewKeen either, but please don’t compare photo theft to human trafficking.

  • Sky

    well, people compare copying files to stealing cars all the time, so I see nothing wrong with comparing photography theft with human trafficking.

  • Gord

    Yeah, sure, theft of media is totally equivalent to people being bought and sold for labour and prostitution.

  • Sky

    And copying files is totally equivalent to stealing real property that some people worked for months if not years. We live in a strange world. I don’t understand that either.

  • a.n.phototaker

    It is stealing – and trust me if you do it with my pictures you will get sued.

  • Brian MacLochlainn

    I can see a comparison between theft of images and theft of “real property” (not that a photo is not real property.
    Intelectual property and specifically the licensing of such property pays my mortgage, it pays for child care, and puts food in front of my kids and clothes on their back. if someone robs my car I can claim it on insurance but IP theft robs my ability to earn a living, it robs my ability to feed and cloth my kids. There is a difference between copy right theft and “real” property theft, but I think you will find that it works the other way, it is easier to replace a stereo or a car than it is to replace your business or means of making a living.

  • Sky

    Well, stealing a car is essentially: removing someone’s profits for a period of time (cause he needs to buy a new car anyway and his money will go into it instead of feeding his children, or buying them clothes). Now it depends on a profits you generate and where you live – but I would argue that it’s MUCH easier to replace a means of making a living than it is to replace an item you earned 3-5 years for.

    Also I wouldn’t assume theft insurance is an option – majority of people doesn’t have it. ;) And intellectual property owners also got their own form of insurance – trade organizations like RIAA (for music) which provide passive income for it’s members.

  • Mitch Labuda

    Look at the success the music and movie industries in stopping copying and pirating, when we go looking for a fix.

  • comptoncritic

    Cheri, your text could use a lot of editing! Too much unnecessary chatter and stuff going on, a lot of it in the ( ).

    It’s probably your style of writing but keep in mind that a little often goes a long way.

    I know you will take my sentiments as intended, as constructive criticism.

  • Brian MacLochlainn

    my car costs about 20% of what I earn in a year, but it has taken me 4-5 years to build up a reasonable business with good profits so I would reverse your numbers. In effect on those numbers alone, robbing my ability to earn I would suggest is 20-25 times as bad as robbing my car, if we look at it another way robbing my ability to earn into perpetuity could easily make that 100 times as bad using simple finance calculations ie 5% yield into perpetuity gives a multiplier of roughly 20 when capitalising an income

    Robbing someones ability to earn is a much greater theft than robbing a material asset which in my case is insured against most basic car insurance packages are 3rd party fire and theft, and I know where I am it is illegal to drive without insurance

  • Chaos01

    He’s not comparing the magnitude. He’s comparing the logic.

  • Gord

    Living in a strange world doesn’t mean we should buy into what are terrible comparisons. And having someone repost your photo, while frustrating and wrong, cannot be equated with human trafficking.

  • Gord

    There isn’t any.

  • Chaos01

    How is it ironic?

  • Chaos01

    Critical thinking isn’t your thing. The analogy concerns the logical conclusion of the poster’s position. If mere volume of incidence is what determines if behavior is proper, then just about any behavior can be justified if it happens often. The poster is actually differentiating human trafficking from the lower level behavior to illustrate how far the poster’s reasoning can go.

    The fact that trafficking is much worse is the point the poster made to show how the prior poster’s would work when applied consistently. Come on people. Get with it.

  • Zos Xavius

    Equivalent in the sense that both are wrong and immoral, which was the commentator’s point.

  • Sky

    As said – it really depends where you live and how much you earn. For me buying a new car would take ~250% of my annual income (and – yes, I also earn from intellectual property, though not photography), switching the business I work in wouldn’t take me more than a 6 months though. So… don’t look at it from your own personal perspective, as most likely you are in less than 0,5% of world population by income. And likely less than 10% of western world population by income. All I can say than is: Instead of counting the amount of photos copied – Enjoy your life, cause you have one of the best lives on a planet.

    “where I am it is illegal to drive without insurance” – same here, only insurance doesn’t cover theft.

  • lightwork

    I empathise with image makers (of any kind), and think its fair that people should have the right to control who use their work and how, especially if used for commercial gain, and absolutely if it is someone’s main source of income.

    However I can’t help but agree with the point made in this piece that no-one else seems to have picked up on: it’s a good thing us writers, journalists, bloggers and other wordsmiths are lenient with copyright, which is also technically enforceable for our work – else the interwebs would grind to a halt.

    It appears the trade off for a potential world-wide market is that once it’s on the internet, you lose that control.

    In an age of open information and sharing, what is the new model that ensures benefits flow to original content creators?

  • Brian MacLochlainn

    just wondering sky, how old is your car? and why would you replace it with a new one.

    you are based in the EU from what I can guess from your website, the average industrial salary in the EU is €42k give or take, a reasonable second hand car easily be picked up in most countries for €10k so rather than drawing specifics I am actually very close to average on my numbers ie a is roughly 20% of average income.

    Now 6 months to go into a new area of business…… I know it has taken me 4 years to get good at what I am doing and get to a point where I am very happy with my work and business model. speaking to many photographers on professional forums and turning pro forums I think I am not out of line with the norm

  • Sky

    Well, almost a new one (‘2012). And why would I replace it with a new one? Because that’s what we’re talking about in our example – replacing stolen item with an equal one.

    As for buisness – keep in mind that it really depends what you want to do. For being a doctor you need at least 5 years university to start with. ;).

    Other than that I think it’s rather unfair to compare a stolen item with loosing an opportunity for profit (stolen photograph or other IP).


    Because that’s what it is – OPPORTUNITY. You can’t freely assume that a person stealing your photograph would buy it instead. It’d either got for a free one (loads of open stocks out there) or make one himself (DSLRs are dirty cheap these days, and majority of people think that they are awesome photographers themselves) or skip the photo all together. I’d say that it’s by far more likely that a person who stole your photograph wouldn’t buy anything from you than that you have lost an actual profit.

  • Vin Weathermon

    Actually I was more blunt with this guy; I said you know that is stealing, right? His response was as though I was an idiot for saying such a thing. This guy represents the youthful masses. If you can take something, it is yours.

  • Zos Xavius

    Hear! Hear!

  • Vin Weathermon

    I wish everyone, particularly in my city, would steal my pictures but leave my watermark on them. I could really use the advertising :-)

  • Brian MacLochlainn

    I don’t think you quite understand the effect of theft on an industry. to paraphrase earlier you wished I looked at the broader point rather than the narrow one….. well here is an example of you going against your own wishes….

    it is not about someone taking a photo and not buying it, it is about people not commissioning you to do work because they no longer see the value in it as everyone else just grabs an image from google. The fact is that one stolen image is not that much to me, (€100 invoice when I catch you :) ), however a mind set that thinks it is okay to steal an image is damaging to an intire industry

    anyway back to your car v photo theft idea. car lasts 10 years lets make an assumption that the average age of a stolen car is therefore 5 years in 5 years a car will depreciate by about 65% in value, I had a quick look at an average family car Ford Mondeo, 2008 mondeo will set you back in the region of 6-9K. this is all averages. again I am coming up with a stolen car assuming no insurance is costing about 20% of the average industrial wage, that is no where near your 250% of an annual salary, who in their right mind would ever pay 250% of what they earn on a car….. they would have to be insane

  • TN

    i see no harm if the exif data is intact.. what i take issue with, is reposting, with no indication where the image came from.. i frequent some sites, simply because they aggregate a considerable amount of information, sometimes that information is a photograph that i enjoy and want to share with a more specific audience.. is it wrong to share the image? aren’t these images meant to be shared?

    I’m not talking about generating revenue from sharing..

  • BeevaloBill

    The concept of intellectual property is indispensable to the advancement of the arts and sciences. Just because something is easy to steal does not make it morally or legally justifiable. What I find ironic, is that so many of those who lay claim to whatever they can misappropriate from others are, at the same time, fiercely protective of their own work. My view is pay the toll or create it yourself.

  • Rabi Abonour

    It’s incredible how many commenters apparently didn’t bother reading the post. This isn’t about a blogger using a photographer’s picture in a post (which is problematic, but probably a fact of life at this point); it is about a photographer representing other people’s photos (and text) as his or her own for the purpose of getting work. This is completely unacceptable.

  • samfeinstein

    Gord, you are right. My example was too extreme. I was trying to think of something bad that was on the rise, but still not acceptable. I’m sorry that this was the first example that came to my mind at 1AM. I should have thought about some more equivalent item, such as identity theft with subsequent theft of assets or credit.

  • crisderaud

    You want to use Google’s Search by Image program to find your own images .

    Google Image Search is a whole different function.

  • james

    “I stole little metal ashtrays from a Burger King in Panama City, Florida.” – black folk are gunned down for less in Florida.

  • Hamm Neggs

    Real Photographers “hotlink”.

  • Brian MacLochlainn

    because being credited for free work will attract:
    a) high paying clients?
    b) more people looking for free work?

    I am going to go with b…. whet an idiotic approach to your career

  • Brian MacLochlainn

    perhaps some of the comments are not about the piece but rather issues raised by other peoples comments, I know all my comments have regarded other peoples comments