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.

  • BrokenHelix79

    In the world of client-based photography, a thief is only as good as his or her OWN work, which will often be proven to be of inferior quality when compared to the images that were stolen. In this way, photography thieves are like insects; they will always be buzzing around, and they can be annoying as hell, but their lifespans are so short as to be insignificant in the grand scheme.

    I can’t worry TOO much about my images being stolen. I keep my head down and break my own back getting better so that my career will long outlast that of the average thief. That kind of vengeance is very satisfying!

    That doesn’t mean I won’t sue your a$$ for being a lazy, lying, third-rate scumbag of a “photographer” if I discover you’ve stolen my copyrighted images.

  • OtterMatt

    While my work now is in no way high enough quality that I’m worried about being stolen from, I have to admit that I’m leery of the thought of improving to the point where a D3 seems like a solid investment. It’s hard to find the motivation to work towards being a professional when there’s this sort of crap to look forward to. What I keep hearing from pros is that being a pro is all about managing your business and your brand, not taking photos. Well, when these scumbags are out there, why would I want to throw that yoke across my own shoulders?

    Honestly, there’s so little ethical awareness in the world anymore that nothing gets through to these intellectual thieves. I doubt anything short of actual, months-long (if not years-long) jail terms *could* get the message across.

  • Kynikos

    Doesn’t anybody edit blog posts anymore? This thing is five times as long as it needs to be.

  • harumph

    OK, but they aren’t exhausted and they don’t spend all their time doing this. The whole point for them is that it’s fast and easy.

  • OtterMatt

    >Blog post

    Are you new here?

  • Alicia

    The thing is when the fakers advertise, they give the impression that they will deliver pro level results on amateur budgets. This leads to an overall cheapening of the profession when people look at their website with their fake portfolio and cheap rates. Then when they do choose the amateurs and don’t have their expectations met, they lower their opinion of the entire profession, not just the shyster (or was that Geyster?)

  • BrokenHelix79

    It’s true that the business takes up far more time than the photography, but don’t let that deter you from investing in yourself and your vision. Is image theft a rampant problem? Sure. But the average photographer will probably go his or her entire career without having any copyright issues. Rarer still is the likelihood that a direct competitor to you will steal an image.

    In other words, if you just keep moving forward in your craft and keep building your own vision, you’ll find success that far outweighs any of the baggage that comes with the job.

  • BrokenHelix79

    I understand that aspect of it, and it sucks. Our industry has taken lots of hits in the past couple decades, and it’s not going to get any easier, that’s for sure.

    A lot of my business is generated from word-of-mouth and referrals, so most of the folks who come to me for photography already know the legitimacy of my brand and ME as a person, because I’ve already dealt with their friends/family/co-workers/etc. I’m building my business in a relatively small market, but I know there are photographers struggling in larger markets where word-of-mouth won’t necessarily work, therefore introducing that trust issue you’re talking about.

    There’s no easy solution, unfortunately. It’s only going to get worse as technology makes it easier to share and manipulate images.

  • Joseph Philbert


  • KevinNewsome

    It’s turds who steal images that pollute the waters of professionalism. Flush ‘em out and flush ‘em down. No mercy, no excuses.

  • Jim Macias

    No retreat, no surrender.

  • GKC

    It’s not just crap photographers trying to bolster their portfolio or website builders etc trying to get the job done cheaply, it’s also the big media corporations too who then try and hide behind “under the 1968 copyright act, (Australia), it was news and therefore comes under ‘fair usage rights'”. Bollocks! it was theft you grimy sods!

    Believe me, I’ve lost thousands from one set of images stolen and re-syndicated across the world!

  • Collin Ong

    I’m also against the photo-stealers, but I wouldn’t assume that they are all crappy photographers with point and shoots. It’s very possible to be a completely technically competent photographer with nice equipment and know how to use it but not have the “eye” or creative vision to come up with cool shots, especially under time pressure. But given some examples, it’s easier to duplicate those, especially if the client requests certain types of shots. I suspect that is more what is going on with these photo-stealers.

  • Gary Pageau

    Is it wrong to copy this article? ; )

  • hector the toad

    I’m nicking all of this as we speak – even the adverts

  • Felipe Yang

    Whoosh. The sarcasm went right over your head..

  • captain-confuzzled

    not sure how you put “competent photographers” and “not have the eye or creative vision to come up with cool shots” in the same paragraph. If you can’t do the shots, it is fraudulent to advertise that you can. If you mean they may have some technical skills, sure, but that doesn’t mean someone should pay them for work they aren’t capable of delivering.

  • Ashley Sue Bullers

    Is it me, or are you being one of the very people the author is talking about – a person whom against all logic actually *defends* the thieves? Because I am fairly certain I just heard an excuse – a huge, stinky, rotten excuse – for inexcusable (and illegal) behavior.

  • Helena hand basket

    You really use the word but a lot. Which I was always taught is a nice way of saying, ignore everything I just said and pay attention to everything after the but. Three times this has happened to me and three times it’s crushed me. It’s not flattering, a compliment, nor does it make me feel awesome. It’s stealing, and it’s a rotten thing to do to those you stole from, as well as potential clients whose money you’re also stealing under false pretenses. Perhaps along with us getting angry, we need to encourage those clients to seek ramifications, as well? I feel especially pained for these hapless couples with nothing more to show from their wedding day than crazy, over blown, over actioned, awful excuses for photographs, and all because they were duped by worthless excuses for human beings, much less photographers. And what v blows my mind is, it’s only getting worse.

  • David Liang

    It seems there’s no end yet to that cycle. So my hope is that while thieves won’t cease, it is the client who adapts and grows savvy. We generally do our due diligence with meaningful purchases, cars, homes electronics etc. I anticipate if this cycle continues consumers will again adapt and realize they too must shop around and do research, and read reviews before soliciting the services of a photographer.
    While client requests may cause more work/effort on the end of the photographer, as long as your work is yours there’s nothing to fear. As far more work goes….I’ll gladly do it to combat theft and/or bring more trust and legitimacy in our field.

  • Collin Ong

    i am not defending the thieves and do not approve in any way of this behavior. I’ve had photos taken before and hate it from a personal and ethical basis as much as the rest of you.

    i am only pointing out that it is an inaccurate viewpoint to assume that every one of the thieves is using a point and shoot, or doesn’t know how to take a technically correct photo given a desired composition or concept.

  • Collin Ong

    I did preface the phrase with “technically competent” to distinguish it from those that are technically *and* creatively solid.

    As I said, it is possible for somebody to be able to take a technically competent imitative shot, given an example, yet be hard-pressed to consistently come up with original shots of the same calibre under time pressure. Everybody assumes that all of the thieves would not be able to deliver similar photos to the client and that is not necessarily the case, and is likely why they can get away with it most of the time.

    Again, I am not defending the thieves or thievery.

  • James

    No, look at the blog, most of it is just out right theft.

  • Kenneth Younger III

    I’m sympathetic, but stop using the words, “theft” and “steal”… at least until someone comes into your house and literally steals a print from you. Until that point, it is “infringement”.

  • Scott M.

    When someone puts their name on your art, it is stealing and theft. If you don’t understand that then you are part of the problem.

  • Kenneth Younger III

    No, it is not theft when that happens. You are equating deprivation of property with unlicensed copying of an image. Those are two very different legal and philosophical things, and you do great injustice to those that have actually suffered a real theft to equate the two.

  • bull mello

    A musician on myspace stole one of my photos to use on his page there. You know, his page with links to buy his music and book his band. Not only that, he was hot-linking it from my photography website thereby also stealing my bandwidth. Trying to give him a chance to cease and desist the only way I could get through to him was by joining myspace and getting a message to him. He said he had no idea hot-linking was wrong. He sort of apologized for that and “borrowing” my photo. I asked him how he would like it if somebody pirated his music. He didn’t seem to make any connection but took my photo down.

    A long time ago arstechnica had a great method for deterring hot-linking by replacing the original photo with another that could be considered rather, uh, disgusting to say the least.

  • Raycarcases

    It’s amazing that in the comments are when you truly see how stupid some people can be. Someone writes about image theft and you get complaints about how it was written, the usage of words and philosophical arguments and defense of people that steal images. Why don’t some of you geniuses who seem to be so much smarter and better than the author go out and get interviewed in Glamour, the NYT, the Chicago Tribune and CNN as the author was? If you’re so badass, it must be a simple thing for you.

    This is why people steal because there will always be some d***ass that will either make points that don’t pertain to the article or find some weird thread to defend people that steal. When I read comments like this, I am convinced that the photographers get the industry they deserve.

  • Christian Plochacki

    i just only can agree.
    But i see the trend, that more and more companies are also riding this train.
    In the last month i had to write a dozen Copyright Infringement letters. Starting with little ones in a small town in Italy, to huge companies in China like Dianping (Chinese “Yelp”), creative agencies, designers. Jesus.
    And like already mentioned, they blame others and often you can’t do anything (if there are in a foreign country…).
    I’m sick of this. I’m sick of writing this mails.

  • Scott M.

    You sound like a lawyer. Would you call it theft if it was done to your art? This mincing of words is the problem. “Unlicensed copying of an image…” I call it stealing.

  • Snapperjack Media

    I agree, it’s thief… in a case in N. Ireland the judge ruled it is ok for a newspaper to use a stolen photo from the internet, & Google photos, the photo owner is going back to court about it.

  • Nadine Spires

    Some thieves go further, they start threatening your life, your family and your security, even claiming to own information on your accounts and also make attempts at extortion as a scare tactic. People like that, I know where they belong.

  • D.G. Brown

    Depending on how much control you have on your server, it’s pretty easy to use a mod_rewrite to make an image redirect to a different image (the page that the image is on shows as the referrer, so you can even redirect to pages based on which site is hot-linking you). I may or may not have had fun with in the past…

  • Rex Ikov

    If someone uses a photographer’s image to gain a paying client, or for distribution for revenue that otherwise would have gone to the photographer, that’s theft. Ergo infringement and theft are not the mutually exclusive terms you think they are.

  • CrackerJacker

    No woman, no cry!

  • CrackerJacker

    You don’t want to commit dumb (or was it dick?) to type, but ass is totally OK? I love seeing how minds work.

  • Justin Case

    Wow, that is some crazy legalese and rationalization. Yeah, it sucks to have some possession you ‘own’ (i.e. paid for, take care of, etc) taken from you. But remember, you didn’t usually design, build, or make that thing you bought. It is a whole different order of magnitude to have the fruits of your labor, – your personal creative work which you have signed and offered to the world as a representation of who you are and what you do – ‘borrowed’ or ‘infringed.’
    If I am a furniture maker and someone breaks into my house and steals a handmade chair from my workshop and claims it as there own, how is that any less insulting or painful to me than them stealing one of my images and passing it off as their own?

    We are not talking about someone ‘infringing’ our copyright by reproducing our work without our permission. What they are ‘stealing’ is our right to the fruits of our labor – to be known as the author of our work, and to be celebrated (or ignored) for it.
    ‘Theft’ and ‘stealing’ are not just appropriate words, I fear we lack language strong enough to condemn this behavior.

  • Kenneth Younger III

    I’m not a lawyer, but I do study intellectual property law an policy, because I’m both a software developer and a photographer. I’m not coming at this from a callous perspective, but a sympathetic one.

    Legal definitions are what they are (usually) because there is a important distinction. This is why whoever “stole” these photos cannot be criminally prosecuted: the author has not been deprived of anything tangible. It is a pure civil matter, and the word infringement is derived from the fact that IP is a government-granted monopolistic right.

  • Kenneth Younger III

    But it’s NOT taken from you. It’s copied. That’s a very important distinction; you still have the ability to use and make copies of your photo.

    If someone broke into your house and stole your hard drive that contained the “original”, or stole the negative to film, or stole an actual print — then you’d have been deprived of the ability to make further copies of your work, and that would be declared a true theft.

    Your furniture example is exactly like this: once someone steal the handmade chair, it’s no longer in your possession. You still have the ability to make copies of your photos if someone copies one your put on a website. You are not deprived of that ability. You have been infringed upon, and that person is civilly liable for all damages caused.

    You are no different from the RIAA and MPAA in your rhetoric here, and we’ve all seen the extent which a party must go to in order to adhere to that type philosophy.

  • Kenneth Younger III

    Rhetoric and language are important when discussion criminal accusations.

  • KevinNewsome

    So if I pirated the software you’re developing, and put my name on it and sold it to Bill Gates and we both make a billion dollars off it… I didn’t “steal” anything, right?

  • Kenneth Younger III

    No, you didn’t steal it. However, you would still be civilly liable for part, or all, of that billion dollars. (And if you sold it in a business transaction, those damages would be quite easy to quantify.)

    Edit to add: the reason you didn’t “steal” it is because you haven’t deprived me of the ability to sell it as well. How can you steal something from me if I still have all the same opportunity to use it as before you “stole” it?

  • ande

    If a competitor infringes my copyright by putting my work on their webpage (as often happens) it makes it appear as if I could be infringing, thus hurts my credibility.

    Worse, it lessens my position in google for that particular content while helping my competitor, on the back of my labor. In the end that means less traffic, less sales of services and less clicks on ads for me — those are tangible loses.

  • bull mello

    On other hot-linkers who ignored my cease & desist I renamed the original photo file and updated my html. On the original file name I put in an image with wording something like: this site is stealing copyrighted images and bandwidth – beware!

  • KevinNewsome

    Theft… stealing… pirating… discerning the differences in the terminology is splitting hairs. The concept is the same, and none are excusable. The point of the article is not diluted by the terminology used.

  • Justin Case

    You still miss the point. And in doing so, you are giving an excuse to the thieves who steal the author’s ownership of their images.
    It is exactly because they are NOT stealing something physical and tangible that is important. If they stole a print I could print another one. But when they steal that print and hang it in a gallery and call it their own, that is the crime we are talking about here, and your insistence on arguing semantics is just giving them a justification.
    IT IS NOT JUST COPYING we are talking about here.
    And to be clear, neither of us is a lawyer and this is certainly not a court, so if your heart is really on the side of the creator/artist, I urge you to rethink your need to try to minimize the damage that photo thieves do to the photo industry.
    This is the dirty tip of an ugly iceberg. And someone downloading a copy of a Metallica song is simply NOT the same as recording a cover of that song and trying to sell it as their own.

  • Kenneth Younger III

    Those are tangible *damages*. You don’t receive restitution, you receive compensation.

    You’re forgetting the point that there would be zero liability if it weren’t for the copyright clause in the Constitution granting you the ability to protect that work. Otherwise, you’d have zero recompense.

    Have you ever wondered why an attorney is required to go after a copyright violator, and not your local police?

  • Kenneth Younger III

    NO. The concept is NOT the same.

    The terminology IS important, and I purposefully commented here because someone needed to correct the author of this post.

  • Kenneth Younger III

    “And someone downloading a copy of a Metallica song is simply NOT the same as recording a cover of that song and trying to sell it as their own.”

    As far as your rights are concerned, it is. I’d think someone so passionate about “protecting” their IP would be more knowledgeable about the law that is the ONLY thing that protects it.

  • ande

    What about the DMCA? The impossibility for small operations is collecting those damages, as you point out.