The Business of Image Theft


"I am sorry but I can't do this" I said, of which the Marya said "good bye".

This is the story of image theft and it happens all the time. I was looking for some freelance work and came across a posting in, they were looking for writers who knew about travel destinations. The idea seem simple enough, the client wanted a short write up on travel destinations and people could pitch their worth to them. Unknown to the writers, the client has hidden a few "caveats" by not revealing that they also want you to steal high resolution photos.

The idea behind the job was at best, questionable. I suggested they would need to buy photos from a stock agency, with a bulk purchase, it would cost less than US$0.70 a photo for Royalty Free images.

The client went on to say that the purpose is completely different. With that I thought maybe they are using it offline as a training document in a school room. Then I decided to ask if it was off line or online use. The answer shocked was for online use.

Any image for public use should be cleared for public use. You cannot go around taking photos in that manner. I know that some may use images gleaned from Flickr to illustrate a Powerpoint presentation for internal use. I am still ok with that but there are limits. If you use a presentation online for any reason, this is a business exercise and for that you have to buy photos.

The client doesn't seem to care and since it was a Malaysian company, there is good reason to suspect that the online use will be hosted outside of the US, meaning a DCMA takedown will be totally ineffective.

Why Companies should go Legit

It cost you next to nothing. Sign up with a stock image agency on a monthly or annual basis and you can download all the pictures you want for a subscription fee if you have a budget. There is no such thing as not having a budget for even the cheapest of photos from RF Stock Image agencies.

When I worked alongside Sony Asia Pacific, there was never a moment about not paying for Royalty free or Right Managed photos. I would seek them out, research them and buy them for Sony. I have paid over US$40,000 in photo royalties to photographers on behalf of Sony for one project alone.

To not pay a dollar or less for royalty use is like stealing candy from a baby—its no easy! These days, medium resolution RF images can easily be bought for a dollar a pop. We all know that life is bitch when you can't get something easily and for free on the Internet. But there are limits to what you can do and ripping off photographers isn't one of them.

I came away from that episode completely frustrated and angry. For me, I don't think photographers are making a killing out of selling their photos. In fact, the whole business of selling photos has gotten so complicated of late to the point there is no way to address the issue anymore. Which pictures should you be offering for RF, and what should be rights managed? With smartphone photography muscling in on the stock image business, there is literally no point in charging more for a photo just because you shot it on a ten grand worth of equipment. The value of an image has depreciated so much these days that anyone with an iPhone can compete with you in the RF stock market sphere.

Print publications don't buy photos like they use to. In fact, thanks to royalty free photos and image scaling software, they can use any image in print without breaking a sweat.

I am constantly reminded of the kind words I got from photographers such as Michael Yamashita, Abbas Atta of Magnum and author Michael Freeman. They need people to champion their rights and change the mindset of clients who are out to buy photos. Don't think for one moment that a stock image agency will do that for you. Litigation is an expensive process and the last thing they want is to lose customers. That is why co-operative image agencies owned by the photographers themselves work best. They have to protect their own interest when no one else will.