An Open Letter to Photography Thieves


Dear Photography Thieves,

I’ve always known you were out there, even in the days of film. In a photography world filled with negatives and prints, you crept quietly in the shadows and, let’s face it, it was harder then, wasn’t it? But now, with the digital age and that glorious thing called social media, it’s so much easier. It’s really a boom time for you. It’s like you hit pay dirt. And, after reading a month’s worth of Photo Stealer’s entries, all I can say is: You. Must. Be. Exhausted.

There are so many new entries from people trying to pass off stolen work as their own that I can barely keep up, which means you all must be stealing at an amazing pace. How do you do it? You must live on espresso and Red Bulls, because you simply refuse to quit. I guess that’s what’s called dedication.

And you don’t settle, that’s the great thing about you all. You don’t wade into the gray area of theft. Oh no, that’s for amateurs. You go all in every single time.


Now, I don’t presume to speak for the entire photography industry. I just speak for me. But I want you all to know that what I am about to say is straight from my heart. Like you, I am kind of an all or nothing gal and I’ve given this plenty of thought. How do I share exactly what I’m thinking in a way that is direct and to the point? After all, you’re busy stealing other people’s photos, so I realize you don’t have a lot of time to invest reading a column like mine. So, I am just going to sum up my feelings in two words:

You suck.

And you don’t suck in that cute way that best friends address each other when one is jealous of the other. It’s not a “You lost ten pounds in 3 days? You suck!” No, it’s more of a “You stole someone’s photos and passed them off as your own? You suck!” kind of way. There’s nothing cute about it. And we all know why you do it…

You steal because you can’t create on your own.

You are incapable of creating original photographic works of any merit so you comb the Internet looking for something to use as your own. And when you find it, you slap your logo on it and accept the praise. And many times, you don’t stop there. Oh no. You create wonderful, elaborate stories to explain the images. You make up scenarios or situations, each a little more fantastic than the next. And your Facebook fans just eat it up. Aren’t you the clever one?

And as I view these stolen images, I wonder what happens when you do fool a client into thinking they will receive what they see — a product you are incapable of delivering? What happens then? What happens to the unsuspecting client who books you for her wedding because she loved what she saw in your portfolio; a client who has scrimped and saved her pennies for this event; and then, after money has been exchanged, is left with something that looks like a 5-year-old took it with a point-and-shoot? What then?


I guess, maybe, I should feel sorry for you. I know a lot of people do. When finally caught, you will dredge up the same excuses and blame it on one of the following:

a website designer

an intern

an artist

an employee

a marketing director


And, undoubtedly, the name of the Lord will be used. (Personal note: God must get awfully tired of being used as an excuse) There is usually a very sad personal story told in the hopes that the sadness will blanket the awfulness of the theft. And, the funny thing is, it works. It seems no matter how much you’ve stolen or lied, there will always be those who rush to your defense. “It was just a mistake!” they cry. “Leave him alone!” Much like the Britney Spears fan video of the same name. 

Some will even claim it isn’t stealing; it’s simply copyright infringement.


Yeah, tell that to the hardworking photographer whose work shows up online with someone else’s logo on it.

But, here’s the thing … photographers who take their craft and their business and the industry very seriously are angry over this, even when it’s not their images being used. They get angry because they know what it’s like to work hard to create something from nothing. Unlike you, they know what it’s like to pour their heart into their work and they want the industry to take a stand against these kinds of dishonest acts. They know that when you steal from one photographer, you steal from everyone, because the very act belittles the industry as a whole.

So, dear Photography Thieves, in spite of all I’ve written, I’m sure that most of this has gone right over your heads. After all, to stop your thieving would mean you’d actually have to get out from behind the computer and learn things, like actual photography and how to run a business, and, well, that’s work. I can picture you shuddering over the very thought.

You will continue stealing from legitimate photographers, but be warned, they are angry. Like, Braveheart angry. Don’t be surprised if they paint half their faces blue, form an army and yell, “You may start a Facebook page, but you will never take our images!”

So be ready for a fight.

  • Kenneth Younger III

    Sorry, I’m not following what you mean by that.

  • Scott M.

    Thank you for the clarifications. This is indeed an area which favors the criminal and all photographers and other image artists would do well to know what they are up against.
    Low resolution and watermarks!

  • ande

    I’m saying the DMCA governs this issue for countries which are part of the treaty that includes it. But despite any concerns you have about laypersons use of legal jargon, copyright infringement does hurt businesses, that’s why we’re here trying to figure out what to do about it.

  • harumph

    Guess so. But that sarcasm kind of misses the entire point. While overall I agree with everything Cheri says in her letter, it is pretty poorly written and full of some incoherent attempts at humor.

  • MickO

    I, for one, appreciate our thoughtful and measured responses. KYIII. This is a very emotional issue for many people, and they need to vent. I get it. Hopefully they will eventually realize that taking emotion out of it can only help their response to the problem be more effective. If the goal is to get some sort of visceral feeling of vindication, then shouting THIEF!! is more effective. If the goal is actually minimizing the infringement, then learning the underlying legal framework and using precise terms would be more effective. For many here, there is more of a direct need for the former.

  • Jim Macias

    No shirt, no shoes, no service.

  • Kenneth Younger III


  • Ayatollyahso

    You are TAKING and using the photographers investment in “skill” (time+,money+,education+ effort) and equipment and their hard won reputation(years of good: solid work); which may have been a factor in gaining access to the location and passing it off as your own work? It deserves an ass kicking. I don’t care if the original digital bits are left untouched on their hard drive.This must beprimarily a young person’s thing it’s blatantly obvious to anyone over the age of 30(?)

  • Ayatollyahso

    because he stole your work and all the efforts AND INVESTMENTS AND TOOLS that led up to it without compensating your for it.

    S-T-O-L-E (“THEFT”).

  • Kenneth Younger III

    Where did I say that there shouldn’t be recourse for infringement?

    And I am older than 30.

  • Kenneth Younger III

    Why don’t the police prosecute said paying client for receiving stolen property? Because it’s not theft.

  • Ayatollyahso

    I find that surprising;However i guess its only us old farts (>50) who recognize:”
    you didn’t conceive the original image;
    you didn’t hire the model;
    you didn’t set the lighting;
    you didn’t coax the expression from the model;
    you didn’t purchase the camera,lens or computer..
    You didn’t choose the exposure or press the shutter;

    In short:
    The finished product
    IS NOT YOURS to do with as you will..

  • Kenneth Younger III

    Who is saying it is? I’m just trying to encourage proper terminology from photographers, lest we become another RIAA.

    Keep raising the age bar, then.

  • Kin

    Just STOP feeding the troll

  • Kenneth Younger III

    I think my discourse here has been pleasant. Just because I disagree with you, you want me to leave? Have fun with your echo chamber!

  • Rex Ikov

    When I worked in the hotel trade I was witness to a spate of car break ins, many caught on camera. The police never prosecuted (or cared to investigate) any of them, it was still theft. And they’re taking revenue from you. If you charge for use of an image and someone uses it without paying, they’ve deprived you of that revenue. And with regards to them selling it on to someone else, you can take action against them too (try selling a Getty image for a client to use on their website, for example, see how long before that client lands a hefty bill and threats of legal action). Also, by selling said image to the client, you would have deprived the photographer that revenue, taking it for yourself, which is theft. You can argue semantics all you like, the rightful owner loses out on the full capacity to exploit their intellectual property for their own financial gain, whilst someone else unlawfully gains.

  • Tim

    It’s not just professionals that have their photos stolen by other photographers. Bloggers, app producers, web designers, magazines, Facebook pages….the list goes on. I had one of my flickr photos stolen by an iPad app and used in a children’s jigsaw puzzle, when I emailed them to ask for just £20 as a token gesture of respect they shut down communication and re-wrote the app and released an update! It’s like they were hell bent on not paying a penny.

    The best thing you can do is make it clear that the image is copyrighted either by using a watermark or writing clearly in the text next to the image, then there can be no excuses. Facebook is also a nightmare so keep them low res and watermarked for fb, and just don’t put your best work on Facebook unless you want it stealing. A lot of the time people who don’t have any concept of image copyright take them, share them and they get picked up by whoever with no way of tracing it back to you. A reverse google images search will bring it up.

  • Kenneth Younger III

    Excuse my poor wording. The police CAN’T prosecute in my example.

    And I keep pointing out that there are ways to recoup damages if someone uses your IP. This doesn’t mean that what they did becomes “theft”. Stop conflating the two.

  • Robert Mann

    You guys realize that everytime you publish an editorial like this, you’re simply waving the cape in front of the bull. Instead of teaching a lesson to those that need it, these sorts of missives tend to make people strive for their Moment of Infamy.

  • Aunt Clara

    No way!

  • Bob Gangwer

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve struggled for the last several years to try to explain that while I don’t mind people clicking the ‘share’ button or retweeting, I simply can’t tolerate people taking my work and using it in their Facebook group or page.

    Unlike many, it’s NOT about the money for me. It’s all about the respect. I took the time to go to the race track, spent the money, stood in harms way, rushed home to get the film developed, made the prints and now, in the digital age, spent countless hours scanning them in. I took the time to put them on my website for people to enjoy, tried to get them sized right so people wouldn’t have to wait for pix to render, and properly SEO’d them so people could find them.

    I’m tired of having to defend myself with people saying that I’m making money on my photos or web content when I ask them to not take my content. In the end, all they would have to do is ASK! I would gladly give my photos to those that would link back to my website where people could learn more about the people and cars in the photos. I would gladly give,(and have more times that I probably should have), photos to teams or tracks for PR or to museums.

    I’m so tired of the “it’s digital so it’s free for me to use,” mentality. Now it’s the point that people are removing my watermarks. The worst part is, how do I fight it? It’s nearly impossible to get Facebook to do anything and it’s gotten so rampant that I would have to sit for 24 hrs each day to go through the process of finding the photos, proving that they are mine, filing the complaint, waiting for the process and on and on. I think the only way I can prove the point is to hire an attorney and frankly, I don’t have the money for that.

    I know I’ve gone on a tangent, but man I’m so freakin tired of having to defend and you really hit the nail on the head with this post!