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