What the law has to say about copying

Yesterday, I made a Facebook post that caused quite an uproar. The majority of those upset by it, however, were upset either because of misinformation on the subject matter itself, or by the fact that I used the actions of a particular photographer as a case study. So, I am writing this blog post to thoroughly discuss the matter in a different manner.


What does the law have to say about copying another photographer’s work?


Photographers are used to thinking about copyright in terms of protecting the images they’ve taken from being used without permission. Photographers get very upset when another photographer, or a company, or a client, uses their work without the photographer’s consent, and understandably so. We know that it is illegal. We expect our clients to understand that they cannot scan the prints they purchase and make more of them.  We are good at protecting our work and our wallets.


But copyright doesn’t just include unauthorized use. It also prevents photographers from being able to publish or sell works that are a direct, intentional recreation of another artists’ work.   Let’s look at the law, which I am quoting from an excellent article by attorney Carolyn Wright, which you can read in its entirety here: http://www.photoattorney.com/copyright-infringement-for-substantially-similar-works/


Substantial Similarity

To establish a claim of copyright infringement, courts require that a plaintiff prove, first, that he owns a valid copyright in a work and, second, that the defendant copied original elements of that work. Id. at 340, 111 S.Ct. at 1296.  The plaintiff can prove copying either directly or indirectly, by establishing that the defendant had access, and produced something “substantially similar,” to the copyrighted work.  Original Appalachian Artworks, Inc. v. Toy Loft, Inc., 684 F.2d 821, 829 (11th Cir.1982).  Access to copyrighted material, as element of copyright infringement, simply requires proof of a “reasonable opportunity to view” the work in question.  Herzog v. Castle Rock Entertainment, 193 F.3d 1241, 1249 (11th Cir. 1999).

Substantial similarity “exists where an average lay observer would recognize the alleged copy as having been appropriated from the copyrighted work.” 


Let’s talk about what this actually means.


Let’s say you see an image on Facebook that you absolutely love. It’s unique and you really want to try to make the image yourself. So, you get very similar props, location, model, use similar light, and do everything you can to replicate that exact image. Well, the law says that is an infringement on the originating photographer. You can certainly do it as a learning tool specifically for your learning purposes, but if you publish or sell that work in any way, you can successfully be sued.


What the law does not protect is style and general aesthetic. I may dislike it when someone’s style looks far too much like mine, particularly when I know they’ve had access to my work, but I can’t do anything about that. I hear very often the defense that people who mentor and teach their techniques can’t complain when other peoples’ work looks like theirs, and that is absolutely correct. Nobody has a corner on the “hazy processing” market. I cannot sue a photographer for generally producing work that has my techniques and aesthetic. The law covers very specific images; I have to prove that somebody saw my particular image and deliberately set out to recreate it in every detail.


Now, the argument I hear most from photographers is “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Others phrase is as “everybody takes ideas from others” and “the person I copied it from wasn’t the first to do it.” Here are some problems with that argument.


–       First of all, the law doesn’t care about justifications. If you do replicate a photographer’s specific image, and you tell a judge, “Everybody’s doing it,” you are not going to get very far.


–       Secondly, not everybody does take ideas and directly duplicate them. For some reason, it has become acceptable to many photographers to do so, but there are many out there who do not learn and profit by directly recreating others’ works.


–       Third, the law requires the photographer who is suing to be able to provide proof of copyright of the original image, as well as proving that the infringing photographer had access to the original. You are welcome to tell the judge that the image is a very common one and not owned by that photographer, and the judge can decide whether that is the case. However, I certainly wouldn’t put myself in that situation.


So, the law says it is illegal to purposefully recreate that image you saw and loved, and publish or sell your version. You may feel that law is unfair and ridiculous, however our opinions of the law do not change it. Am I saying that if you recreate an image, you’ll get sued? Of course not. What I am saying is that you could. It is your choice whether you want to take that risk.


How close is too close?


This is where I often hear the emotional responses such as, “Oh, so, what, I can’t put a baby in a basket without getting sued? So, I can’t take a maternity image in a field?” That is not what the law is saying. You cannot copyright a concept or a genre, only a specific image.


You have to consider the complexity and the uniqueness of the image being copied. A newborn wrapped in a blanket is very hard to prove as “your” image. A newborn wrapped in a blanket surrounded by cigar-smoking Rat Packers a la Mad Men is probably going to be pretty easy to prove as “your” image. A maternity image in a field is pretty generic. A maternity image in a field on a unicycle is not.    


I’ll give you an example from my own work.


This image of Chalita is most certainly mine, but there’s not much about it that’s unique. I could never prove that anybody copied this image. Far too generic.




However, this second image featuring Chalita is far more complex. The set has been specifically designed down to the last detail. The characters are playing out roles I assigned them, the lighting was done quite intentionally. The mood and aesthetic of it are very identifiable as mine. If someone were to see this image and say, “I love the concept. I would love to play with this idea, do something along these lines, maybe do something in a speakeasy or a café, create an image that looks vintage or nostalgic…” and used my image as inspiration, there is no problem. On the other hand, if someone were to set out to exactly recreate the poses, the set, the light, the mood, the overall aesthetic, and try to make THIS image, I would have a solid case against them, provided I could prove that they had access to the original image. (Facebook and forums makes this quite easy, so buyer beware.)





Inspiration versus recreation


A common reaction to this discussion is to insist that the photographer being copied either has it coming (she teaches her techniques in workshops, so she can’t be upset when someone copies her work) or shouldn’t be so touchy about it (she’s famous and I’m just small potatoes, so she shouldn’t care if I copy her image.)


This is where we have to separate inspiration from recreation. Or, if you will, art from craft.


You may sign up for a workshop designed to teach you someone’s processing techniques. A logical outcome of that is that you will, at least for a while, very likely produce images that are processed similarly to that photographer’s. That’s natural, logical, and at least in part unavoidable. However, that does not mean you can specifically copy an image down to the last detail (subject, pose, background, lighting, processing, props, environment) in an attempt to fully duplicate the specific image. That photographer taught you techniques for you to use in your own work; he or she did not sign away their image copyright to you as part of your tuition. That’s not my opinion; that’s what the law says.


Inspiration is a wonderful thing. I see things that inspire me every day. They’re rarely photographs; instead I’m inspired by things like light, music, movies, unusual or funny moments, every great now and then by a photograph. But when a photograph inspires me, it is my responsibility to myself as an artist, and to that photographer out of respect for him and for the law, to use that inspiration to create my own unique work. I have to engage my heart and my mind, to identify what it is about the image that moves me, to process why it moves me, to sort out how to relate that to my work, and myself and to create something that is an expression of me. If I simply set out to make that image I am infringing on their copyright – and I am also letting myself down as an artist.

I am robbing myself of an opportunity to grow, to use my unique voice.


Learning how to be appropriately inspired is an art. It takes time, effort, and a lot of frustration at times. And it takes self-discipline, in spades. If you know that you are a natural mimic, I would highly recommend refraining from constantly filling your head with other peoples’ images. I speak from personal experience; when I got serious about photography, I intentionally isolated myself from the entire photographic world. I knew that I would end up making copies of someone else’s work, and I knew that I could not copy my way into being a unique, honest artist. I learned to seek inspiration elsewhere. I avoided the trends. It worked for me.


What does this means for the industry?


There are an awful lot of photographers these days. It’s a constant battle for most photographers to try to stand out, either because of a desire to be recognized for unique work, or because of a need to succeed financially. Staying in business is not easy these days. Everyone wants to rise above the rest.


And yet, the direct recreation of another photographer’s work is largely defended as inevitable and frankly, no big deal. And so, we have turned into an industry that embraces copying while seeking recognition as an artist.


Therein lies the rub.


It is certainly not easy to come up with your own ideas. It’s very tough. Creativity is not inherently easy for all of us. I don’t consider myself particularly creative, or at least my creativity usually comes in the form of how I capture a scene rather than setting out to create a novel idea. It’s a difficult process, but it’s very worth the hard work. Allowing yourself to give in to the notion that “nothing is new under the sun” will stifle you, and allow you to stagnate. There is always a new way of doing things. There is always something new to be said. If you do your own thing, follow your own drummer, and every now and then something happens to resemble an image of someone else’s? It’ll probably happen, but you’ll know it was pure coincidence. That’s fine. When I had my first gallery show after isolating myself as I mentioned above, I heard tons of comments about how much my work must have been inspired by Sally Mann. I had to actually Google her. But it was the general tone, mood, and subject matter that drew the comments, not specific images of mine designed to recreate specific images of hers. Nothing wrong there.


So, photographers, go do your thing, and I do mean your thing. It is so much more rewarding, and a lot better way to spend your time than having to worry about whether you’ve changed that image enough to not get sued. Do your own work, have your own ideas, and you’ll never have to worry about it.


Enjoy the process.

Enjoy the process.



If you’ve taken a workshop with me, or received a photography-related email from me, or read my blog in the past, you’ve definitely seen me sign off with the phrase, “Enjoy the process.” I’m honestly not sure when I started doing that, or how it became habitual, but I can tell you why I do it.

In my usual roundabout way.

I am not a patient person. Never have been, probably never will be. I want things now. When I plan a trip, I want to leave immediately. Waiting for UPS to deliver packages to my door is downright painful. (I’m waiting for one right now — GAH!) Road trips are damn near impossible for me. I just get so excited about the things that interest me that it’s very difficult to appreciate the time it takes for those things to happen. Some people savor the trip-planning process, and the mental vacation and excitement that the planning process brings. (You listening, Janelle?) I am most certainly not one of them.

We all know in our heads that some things are worth waiting for, and that some things are impossible without patience, without dedication, without the process. But it doesn’t stop us from getting discouraged or irritated when we don’t get instant gratification.

We want to get thin without changing our eating habits long-term.

We want to be toned and strong without the pain of regular, disciplined gym time.

We want our dream jobs, but without the years of education and paying our dues.

When we’re kids, we want to skip straight to being adults so we can do whatever we want. (Hahaha.)

When we’re single, we want to be in a great relationship, but who wants to date??

The simple truth is that there are very few things in life worth having that are easy to get. But we do live in a society that wants instant rewards.

And the greater truth is that when we do find it in ourselves to push through the impatience, the inconvenience, the challenges required to get to that reward, we realize that the real reward is the personal growth we earned along the way. That’s how we get to know ourselves on a deeper level, to understand how strong we are, how resilient, what exactly it is that we’re made of, what makes us unique. And so often, those are times that we remember as the best days/weeks/years of our lives. I love and appreciate what I’ve accomplished with my work, but the excitement of those early breakthroughs! I think of them wistfully and miss the whirlwind years.

Photography is many things to many people. But if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably passionate about it either as a hobby, an outlet, or a profession. You probably have goals and dreams attached to your camera that you cannot wait to achieve. Maybe it’s finding your voice and creating work that people instantly recognize as yours. Maybe it’s getting past a specific technical mental block that seems to have you stumped right now. Maybe it’s figuring out how to set yourself apart to make your business more successful. Whatever it is, I am here to tell you that the blood, sweat, and tears you put into the process of getting to the end result you want is worth enjoying. Commit to it. Savor it. Understand that the process is its own reward. Struggle and know that you are accomplishing something great, even if it feels like it’s at a snail’s pace.

And remember that you can’t grow the art without growing the artist. Everything worth having is worth working for.

So…. get out there and enjoy the process.


If you haven’t already checked it out, I’ve got a new website dedicated to photographer mentoring, workshops, and artistic development.  New classes and programs have been posted, including the next run of the Art of Self-Critique workshop series.  Please do drop by and visit at www.cjmentoring.com.

Art of Self-Critique, April 7 – 11, 2014

Hello, all!  I hope you’ve had a wonderful Christmas and are getting ready to kick off 2014 in style.  I’ve set the dates for the next Art of Self-Critique workshop, scheduled for April 7 – 11.  There is a lot of interest in this class already, so if you’d like to grab a spot, the sooner the better!  Please send me an email at cjnicolai08@gmail.com to request a spot, or with any questions you may have.  I’m looking forward to working with you in the new year!


 – CJ

Long Island, NY January 2014

I am looking forward to two workshops coming up in Long Island, NY, in just a few weeks!  The workshops are already almost full (three seats left total) and I haven’t even posted them on my blog yet — that’s pretty cool.  Both workshops are custom designed to meet the needs of those who register, focused primarily on emotive portraiture and all aspects related to technique, style, and identity.  These workshops are appropriate for both amateur and professional photographers, and film and digital shooters.  Diversity is great!  You can expect a balance of instruction, discussion, and hands-on work.  Each attendee will also receive a portfolio critique designed to help you identify strengths, opportunities, and artistic direction.  If you are interested in attending, please drop me a line to cjnicolai08@gmail.com as soon as possible.  I’d love to meet you!


Jan 19 – 20

Jan 26 – 27

10am – approximately 5pm, with critiques scheduled for before and after hours


To 365 or not to 365?

Before you commit to that 365:

First of all, happy almost new year.  It’s that time of year when we all start thinking about all the great things we’re going to do in the new year.  For photographers, we inevitably start thinking about changes to our business, new directions, and starting fresh with projects.  And that’s why I’m choosing right now to raise this subject.

Let’s talk about 365 projects.

I want to preface this blog post by saying that I am not telling you that 365 projects are bad.  I’m not telling you that you should absolutely not do it.  I’m not criticizing anyone who is doing or will decide to do one in the future, and I’m certainly not attacking anyone who recommends them.  I simply want to give you some food for thought in determining whether this is a goal that is healthy for you.

When I critique photographers, more often than not I end up critiquing the images on their blog.  It’s generally updated more often than a website, and it’s usually more “culled” than Flickr.  But I find that almost every time I mention images that were made as part of a 365, I get a heavy duty disclaimer.  Why?  Let’s discuss.

The purpose of a 365, the best that I can figure, is to encourage photographers to get out there and shoot.  That is, generally speaking, a good thing.  It’s tough to improve when you aren’t taking pictures.  Practice is a good thing.  But that old adage “Practice makes perfect” is wrong.  As so many have said more accurately, practice makes permanent.  What you do over and over again becomes habit.  That is good, when you are practicing effectively and correctly.  When you practice bad (or sloppy, or lazy, or inconsistent) habits, those become permanent.  So when you realize at the end of the day that you haven’t taken your 365 image and you’re exhausted, grumpy, and out of light, that “I’ll shoot it because I have to” image is what you end up practicing.  And let’s be honest — with a 365 project, that usually happens a lot.  These are generally hurried, less than thought-out, not very-very-invested images.  They’re the ones that, when I bring them up in a critique, photographers almost always brush off and/or apologize for.

And then there’s the fact that, as with anything, moderation is key.  What would you say to a friend who compulsively works out every single day?  Well, you would probably remind them that you have to have non-gym days to let your mind and body recover and actually build muscle.  What would you say to a friend who works at his or her job every single day?  You would remind them that they need to take a break and enjoy life every so often, to find balance.  What would you say to the friend who never, ever allows herself to eat pizza or have a piece of cake?  You’d remind them that balance is key, and you have to allow yourself an indulgence every now and then.  But 365 projects require that you do not ever get to have a day where photography isn’t necessary, and if you do miss a day, you feel guilty.  I don’t necessarily think that’s healthy.  I think it creates a real risk of photography being associated with drudgery and obligation.

Keep in mind, too, that for many if not most of us, the primary subjects in a 365 wind up being our own children.  365 days a year, every day of the week, they will probably have that camera pointed at them, for the sake of fulfilling a long project, with zero days off.  And we wonder why our kids run away when they see the camera come out!  It’s not fun to be on stage every single day.  It’s a lot different than “documenting our kids lives.”  The photo-a-day mentality says that there will be a picture, no matter what.  Documenting our kids lives means photographing little moments as they happen.  Very different things.  Even if you sometimes point your lens toward other subjects, our kids get the majority of the frames.  Oh, and our significant others have to live with the insanity too, to have a partner who cannot go a single day without thinking about that camera.  Lots of potential for friction there!

The importance of personal projects is that they allow you total freedom of expression, to learn and explore both your technique and your voice, to learn what you want to say it and to say it more effectively.  To take risks without fearing rejection.  It’s not strictly the shooting of the images that we learn from, but the examining and studying of the images we make.  Identifying what works, what doesn’t work, what strikes a chord and what falls flat.  Without that, we are getting really very little out of what we shoot.  It takes time to do this, and I don’t personally believe that forcing ourselves to shoot every single day allows much time to study and learn from those images, and to be inspired.

I would much rather see meaningful, disciplined personal projects.  Ones that you work on on a regular basis because you are compelled to by the story, rather than driven by obligation.  Images that you have the time and the will to really invest yourself in, to exercise your ability not just to take a technically adequate image, but to strengthen your thought process as an artist.  Photographs that motivate you and that you are, eventually, proud of and willing to stand behind, with a cohesive, coherent and eventually, mature voice.

I am always talking to photographers about figuring out a personal project that they really love and that comes from a deep, honest place.  Rather than rewriting all of that here, I’ll just link you to this post.  I would love to see photographers commit to one really meaningful image per week, or even per month, to add to their personal project. Time to think, to analyze, to re-shoot, to reconsider and try in different ways, to enjoy the process rather than be ruled by it.  To grow in a healthy and balanced way.

In the end, if you decide you can make a 365 work for you, then by all means go for it — and don’t feel bad at all if you do start and then don’t keep up with it.  But if you decide it’s not going to take you in the direction you want to grow, then more power to you.  It’s about positive, meaningful growth.  Do it in the way that works best for you.

Vintage Soph

Soph still loves modeling for me

Spring Self-Critique Workshop, April 2014

For those who have been asking, the next Art of Self-Critique online workshop will take place this April.  I’ll be super busy until then, teaching two workshops in Long Island, New York, in January, conducting Part 2 workshops with previous groups, and developing other aspects of my business.  And, you know, life in general.

These workshop do fill quickly, so please drop me a note with your email address or reply here if you’d like to get a little advance notice when the workshop opens for registration.  I’m looking forward to working with you!

– CJ

No More Rock Stars

Remember the Ashlee Simpson Saturday Night Live debacle?  No?  Let me refresh your memory: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RrLAgi_mBY

Ashlee Simpson got busted for lip syncing on live TV.  It’s not like we, the public, didn’t know it was common in the industry.  But we like our pop stars perfect.  Perfect hair, perfect bodies, perfect pitch, perfect behavior.  Of course, the perfect hair is weaves and extensions, the perfect bodies are courtesy of a liposuction-starvation-cigarette-spray tan-breast implant-personal trainer cocktail, the perfect pitch is due to autotune, and the perfect behavior?  Well, as long as they look good doing it, we’re pretty OK with it; at least we seem to be OK with it, since we keep watching, listening, and buying the music.

The irony is that we love to moan about how vapid the pop music industry is.  We complain – while we try to look like them, sing along with them in the car, and (don’t lie) even have our moments of envy.

Back to Ashlee.  (Or substitute Milli Vanilli if you’d prefer.  Same idea, different generation.)  We knew she was largely a manufactured product, and yet it was the talk of the town when she was exposed.  The problem is, we too often value perceived perfection over character, raw talent, and a strong work ethic.  We want glamour and glitter and glitz.

What does this have to do with photography?  Everything.

Every time I read about a photography industry “rock star” I laugh to myself.  Because it’s so damn accurate.  Rock stars in the current music industry do not necessarily have to be musically gifted or unique.  They simply have to look good, be willing to turn themselves into whatever sells, pay people who do have talent to provide the material, and not be ethically opposed to the occasional lying, cheating, and stealing to preserve their façade.

Sound familiar?  Sure does.  Ouch.

(Now, before I proceed, let me clarify that I’m not asserting that all well-known photographers are ”bad.”  Not at all.  There are some, although not many and not enough, who shoot good, honest work and are true to themselves, and have gained a following accordingly.  Those are not the ones I’m addressing here. Read on.)

Unless you’ve had your head in the sand, you probably know what I’m alluding to here.  Yes, those two photographers who were caught plagiarizing, but also so many others.  We want our “rock star” photographers perfect.  Talented, preferably attractive, well-spoken, entertaining, humble, and constantly churning out pretty pictures that look exactly like what we expect.  We eat it up.  We expect it.  We know that nobody is perfect, but we still want to believe that they are.  When those “rock stars” are caught doing something wrong, we are either shocked by it, or we choose to dismiss it.  We simply must have someone to idolize, and we reward the appearance of perfection in our idols.  We fall for the PR and marketing ploys hook, line, and sinker, because we want to.  Was that meatloaf claim really modesty, or is it a PR move to increase likeability? (Wink, wink to those who got that reference.)

Here are the inevitable results of the “rock star” culture we’ve cultivated in our industry.

–       The “rock stars” will do whatever it takes to keep our attention and maintain the illusion.  That can certainly include plagiarism, stealing images, usurping materials, and playing on our sympathies when they get caught.  They are not entirely to blame; they are simply filling a role that we created for them, by any means necessary.

–       The “rock stars” will not risk losing their status through risk taking and vulnerability.  They put out only the best of the best of their work, and only the work that they know will appeal to the masses.  They don’t take many real chances.  They rarely grow in any meaningful way.  What you see now will always be what you get.  And that creates an environment, an industry mind set, that says, “This is what good photography is supposed to look like.”  And so, by emulating those “rock stars” we convince ourselves that our images must fit that standard.  If they don’t, we consider them weird and less valuable.  This is how we’ve turned our industry into vanilla pudding.  The homogenization of art.

–       We’re overlooking some pretty amazing talent out there who choose not to play the game.  Photographers whose work is deep, unique, emotive, groundbreaking, challenging, difficult to view and demanding to understand, work that requires actual thought.  And we, as a whole, have forgotten to appreciate the work of the trailblazers who came before us.  We bemoan the fact that our teenagers know every word Beyonce or Taylor ever sang, but have never heard of Ella Fitzgerald; meanwhile, nearly every photographer I work with knows who Jasmine Starr is, and few have ever heard of Imogen Cunningham.  (Apologies, but I simply refuse to use that trite marketing-gimmick abbreviated notation of Jasmine Starr’s name.  It would be like dubbing myself C-Nic.)  It’s just much easier to look at the slickly marketed photographer-du-jour who has managed to get himself/herself plastered all over the Internet, than to actually seek out the photographers who are more concerned with their art than their Google ranking.

I so want to see us take our industry, our art form, back.  What does that mean, and how do we do that?  Here are some thoughts to consider, as a starting point.

Stop idolizing and learn how to draw inspiration instead.  That means not trying to make your work look like so-and-so’s, and to focus on figuring out how to express yourself.  Learn to look critically at a body of work and understand the “how” and “why” instead of setting out to duplicate it.  It requires effort, and the effort is also the reward.

Seek out photographers whose work is way off the beaten path.  Just because you’re a child portrait photographer does not mean that you should only draw inspiration from other child portrait photographers.  Look at landscapes, at still life, at journalism.  Explore Eastern European photographers, Asian photographers, anything that is outside of your immediate realm. Look at color, at black and white.  Study alternative processes and conceptual work.  While you’re at it, look at movies, sculpture, paintings, any visual art. When you find work you strongly dislike, take the time to figure out why.  When you find something interesting and challenging, share it.  Learn from it.  The world of photography is so much bigger than Facebook, or that forum, or your blog circle.

I want us to start challenging the norm and start taking some risks.  If I had a dollar for every photographer I’ve critiqued whose website is full of “vanilla pudding” images because the deeply effective, vulnerable, rule-breaking images they really love might not get as many thumbs on Facebook, I would be one rich woman.  And that leads me to:

We must stop being so thin-skinned that we cannot handle it when everybody doesn’t applaud our work.  We have got to start creating according to our own artistic eye, instead of for the masses.  I’ve said it for years:  I’d rather have 100 people who deeply appreciate my work, than 10,000 who think it’s “pretty.”  Stand behind your work.  Be open to critique, but apply it as it makes sense to do so, to tell your story in your own voice.  You cannot bend to fit every trend and every opinion; trying to do so will mean that you will lose yourself in the process.

Please stop spending money on things just because everyone else is buying them, or because That Photographer uses one.  If you’re going to spend money on a lens, a prop, a workshop, know why you’re doing it, why you need it, and what you will get out of it.  Don’t throw money at a “rock star’s” workshop unless you specifically need to know the information that person is teaching.  Trust me, if they have nothing groundbreaking to say, their mere physical presence is not going to make you a better photographer.

And please slow down.  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  You will not be an educated, experienced, confident, unique photographer overnight.  It takes blood, sweat, and tears.  Buying the action that makes your work look like That Photographer’s is not the answer, it’s just masking the problem.  You do not need to be in business just because you’ve been shooting for a year and people like your pictures.  It is not a race, and there are no shortcuts.  Anybody that tells you otherwise is probably putting you on their mailing list for their magical workshop right now.

Once you’ve figured out who you are as a photographer, gain your fans and followers through honest, unique work.  As tempting as it is, resist the urge to “vanilla pudding” your way into mass approval.  Be willing to work happily in near obscurity.  You do not need to be idolized to have a client base who appreciates your work and allows you to be your own creative, imperfect self.

And as tempting as it is, don’t make excuses for the “rock stars” when they’re caught being dishonest.  If you wouldn’t accept it from your child, don’t accept it from a photographer.  You’d discipline your child for copying another student’s test paper, wouldn’t you?  Everyone makes mistakes and I’m a huge believer in second chances, having been the recipient of more than a few of them myself; that is entirely different than excusing the behavior and defending illegal or unethical actions.  Being popular is not a good reason to not be held accountable.

When you do find the photographers out there who are creating strong, unique, effective, honest work, learn from them – but do not idolize or imitate them.  It is not about finding a photographer who you want to be when you grow up.  It’s about learning the lessons that photographer learned, and applying them to your unique growth and path.  And learn from as many of them as you possibly can.  If you take all of your knowledge from a single person, you will inevitably wind up looking like a knock-off.

At the end of the day, this industry simply doesn’t need rock stars.  It needs role models, and people who know how to both teach and learn.  We should all aim to do more of both.

Fall In Love With Film!

If you’ve been curious about film, or you’ve been wanting to attend a FILM INSPIRES! workshop, I have good news to you. I’ve just finished a big project called Fall In Love With Film, and it covers just about everything you need to know about shooting film. From modern MF and 35mm cameras, to toy and vintage photography, metering for film, getting creative with different techniques, developing film, choosing your gear, trouble shooting…there is a TON of information. It consists of:

– a beautiful 57-page PDF
– seven video segments demonstrating camera loading and film development
– my personal film development notes and data
– two print-sized images for your enjoyment
– if you buy it before Oct 30, you have full access to my Q&A session, and you can ask me any question you’d like.

The price? Tiny. Trust me.

You can find it here, and you don’t need to be a member to buy it. http://www.clickinmoms.com/cmu/archives/5494

Hope you’ll hop on over and check it out!

On plagiarism, invoices, and excuses

I’ve written on this subject a number of times, but it seems I need to do it again, and so I will.

I have a hard time these days not rolling my eyes every time a see a copyright notice on a photographer’s page.  Not because I think they shouldn’t post it, or because I don’t believe in defending copyright.  Quite the opposite; I’m a huge believer in our right to protect our work and be compensated for its use.  No, the reason I roll my eyes is because of the number of times I’ve seen those “all rights reserved, no use without written consent” words printed on a page right under my plagiarized writings.

That tells me that the photographer 1) is aware of copyright laws, and 2) will get all hot and bothered and offended if and when someone “borrows” his/her images, bio, or what-have-you.  (And please note, usually that bio has all kinds of words about how creative and unique the photographer’s work is.)

And yet, I still have to continually send out invoices to photographers who take my words, verbatim, and plaster them with no credit or permission across their websites, blogs, marketing — hell, even their studio walls.

Invoice, you ask?  Yes.  The first thing I send when I find unauthorized use of my work, whether it’s words or images, is an invoice.  This is because, as a working artist and writer, I demand payment for my work.  That is my primary goal.  And that’s lucky for the infringers, because I’m simply invoicing them the amount they should have paid in the first place; if I were to pursue it in court, I could ask for damages as well, and that is where the real money comes in.  I send that invoice as an opportunity for me to get paid for my work, for the infringer to avoid being put out of business with huge legal fees and damages, and for us both to avoid the headache of going to court.  Very often, the infringing photographer sees reason and sends the invoiced amount with an apology, which is the best case scenario.  However, quite often my emails and invoices are met with excuses and defensiveness — or worse, ignored entirely.

First, let me assure you that when I send that invoice, I am not bluffing.  I don’t kid around about my work and my income.  I will not send you an invoice and then give up and say, “Oh, well.”  I will send a second and sometimes third notice, and after that, it’s going to a lawyer.  Period.  So ignoring it is not going to help matters at all.  Also consider the fact that if I don’t get a satisfactory response from you, I have absolutely no obligation to keep the matter quiet.  Stealing and refusing to remedy the situation means that your reputation is going to take a serious hit.  And just to clarify, by the time I contact you, I have collected all the necessary evidence, including screen grabs, so denying it is senseless.

But let’s talk about that “excuses and defensiveness” thing.  Because that is what really gets my goat.  Here are the replies I see most often.

“I tried to found out who the author was, but I couldn’t find anything.”  I hear this way too much.  The problem is, it is simply not true.  I am not asking you to track down some obscure poet.  It is not difficult to find me and my writings.  Let’s be honest, here.  I’m not all that technologically advanced.  I don’t have crazy sophisticated software that seeks and destroys the tiniest little infringement.  I have Google.  If you have received an invoice for plagiarism from me, I probably found you via Google.  And the beauty of Google is that it works both ways.  So, had you typed in a sentence from that section of text you swiped, you would have found me.  In any number of places.  It is not difficult.  If you couldn’t find me, it’s because you made zero effort.

And here’s the real kicker: just because you “couldn’t” find the author doesn’t mean you had the right to use the words.  Whether or not you know who originally wrote the words, you know it wasn’t you.  So, either find the original author and ask permission, or do not use them.  If you choose to use them, you are choosing to take on the risks and consequences of your actions.


“I’ve never seen your article, and I wrote those words myself.  It’s just a coincidence.”  OK, let’s be reasonable here.  We all know that there are common buzzwords, phrases, and cliches in the photography world.  If we both happen to have the sentence, “I love making real memories of your kids that will last a lifetime,” I am not going to yell plagiarism.  However, when I see full sentences of mine, written in my identifiable voice, strung together and used verbatim, that is not a coincidence.  The most recent example of this was a photographer who claimed that all on his own, completely coincidentally, he penned the following words which happened to be identical to mine, published years earlier:  “People  photography is about people, not about photography. Great photography is a side effect of a strong human connection.”  I’m sorry, but no.  You may not remember having read it elsewhere (although when it is two full, lengthy sentences quoted verbatim, I have a hard time believing that) but the simple fact is, you read it somewhere and used it.  You had the responsibility to look up the original author.  There is no excuse.

“I found it on Pinterest and it said ‘author unknown’ so it was OK for me to use it.”  [pardon me for a second:  seriously, are you freaking kidding me?  Am I supposed to be laughing right now?  Oh, wait, you’re serious?]  Alright, let’s discuss this.  First of all, Pinterest is not an intellectual property grocery store.  You cannot go there to find stuff to use for your business, unless you track down the originator and ask permission as you should anywhere else on the web.  Pinterest’s own copyright statement begins with this:  “Pinterest (“Pinterest”) respects the intellectual property rights of others and expects its users to do the same.”  So, it is your responsibility, wholly and solely.  That said, you also must remember that there is no IP cop roaming Pinterest checking each and every pin for copyright violations and plagiarism.  Just because it’s on Pinterest does not mean that the person who posted the “original” did any kind of research.  So, that cool quote you found on Pinterest with “author unknown” or “anonymous” after it does not excuse you from doing the due diligence to check it out.  “Author unknown” is usually pure laziness.  The fact that the person who quoted it didn’t know offhand who wrote it does not mean the author is unknown.  It generally means they couldn’t be bothered to do five minutes of research and give proper credit.  In any case, even if the author is indeed “unknown” it does not mean you can claim that you wrote it, or represent that in any way.  It’s not just unethical and immoral, it’s illegal.  You are not the author.  You cannot legally claim to be.

“Well, it really inspired me and so I wanted to share it.”  Great.  I write to inspire, and to teach, and to motivate.  I’m glad my words worked.  But that does not mean you do not have to ask permission and give credit.  If you really appreciate the words, appreciate the person who wrote them.  Honestly, when people have emailed me asking permission to share my words with proper credit, I have never once turned them down.  Now, if you’re wanting to put my words on a product and sell it, with or without credit, then we’ll need to talk about compensation.  But to simply share the words with credit?  Absolutely.  I’ll be pleased and flattered.


“I’ll just take the words down.”  No. This misses the point.  By the time the plagiarism has come to my attention, you’ve already benefited from my work without compensating me for who knows how long.  And remember, nothing on the Internet is ever “gone.”  And so, no, it is not enough to delete the words and ignore the invoice.  If you steal a car and keep it until someone catches you, you don’t get to just give it back and get off free.  Not the way it works.  You used my words on your business site, in your marketing, on your studio walls….you owe me proper payment.  So, again, you can either pay the invoice or I can take you to court and add damages onto the bill.  (And just to clarify, if you pay my invoice, the terms state that you can continue to use the words for the specified amount of time.  Because that’s the way paying for license works, and I am allowing you, after the fact, to legally license the use of my work.)


Let’s be very clear about all of this.  Plagiarism is illegal.  It is intentional.  Ignorance does not get you off the hook.  And getting caught comes with costs, both to your reputation and to your wallet.  The Internet might make plagiarism easier and more rampant, but it does not make it more legal.


The best way to avoid all possible problems?  Write your own stuff.  Post your own pictures.  It’s a creative industry, for the love of God.  Let’s all create for ourselves.


The reviews are in!

The first run of the Art of Self-Critique Online Workshop was a smashing success.  Here’s what some of the attendees had to say:

One of the best things I’ve done for myself EVER.

On the second day, I already knew that this workshop had exceeded my expectations. CJ covered a huge variety of topics from processing to composition to light and how to use these skills and your own vision to assess your own work. I’m a hobbyist who mainly shoots my own child, so I often have that dreaded question in the back of my mind – is it mommy goggles? CJ helped me trust in my vision and skills. She literally spent hours with each workshop attendee. I felt like it was more like a week long mentoring session, but instead of her telling us what worked and what didn’t, she helped us to decide for ourselves. I recommend this workshop to anyone from beginner to pro, it was probably one of the best investments in my photography, I just wish I had done it sooner!

The workshop was simply amazing. Eye-opening. Enlightening. I have a much better vision for my work now. I’m inspired and invigorated, and I feel like I know where to go next.
But the best measure of success is that nine of the ten attendees have signed on for a Part 2 workshop, covering even more techniques and assessing and directing their photographs and body of work.
Because demand is so strong, I’ve just announced several more opportunities to take this course, which you can view in the post directly before this one.  I hope you’ll join us for an amazing learning experience!