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.