Just because you found it on Google, doesn't mean it's free.

"Flying in a Beautiful Static" by Jaymi Britten featuring Jena Sommer Kim.  September 2005. Waimea, Hawaii.

"Flying in a Beautiful Static" by Jaymi Britten featuring Jena Sommer Kim.  September 2005. Waimea, Hawaii.

"Heaven's Below" T-shirt sold on Rake and Strays by EIO (Excess is Ok) Image Source: http://iloveyourtshirt.com/new,Rake-and-Strays-by-EIO

"Heaven's Below" T-shirt sold on Rake and Strays by EIO (Excess is Ok)
Image Source: http://iloveyourtshirt.com/new,Rake-and-Strays-by-EIO

As a photographer, you invest everything into your photos. Your money goes towards photography equipment, software, and project expenses. Other people are also invested, such as models, makeup artists, hair stylists, etc.  And more money is spent on products (hair and makeup), wardrobe, props, travel, and additional expenses... like project planning over coffee or brainstorm sessions over lunch. TIME, the most valuable thing you can never get back, is a major investment. Hours and months go into exploring an idea, producing it, and executing it.  That is why photographs have value and people should be more respectful when using something they did not create. This is why I don't sit idle when I see someone using copyright work without permission and without giving credit or payment where it's due.

CREATIVE CONTENT IS NOT FREE CONTENT.

To see people stealing original content and using it for profit to build their own business and brand identity without having to pay a single price makes me feel sick to my stomach (because people do get away with it.)

When I first took up photography as a hobby, I was publishing my underwater film work to the artist community DeviantART.  In 2005, I shared one of my favorite images that I took of my sister, which I titled "Flying In A Beautiful Static."  Four years later in 2009, one of my friends discovered my image on the front of a graphic t-shirt, sold by a UK clothing company called Rakes and Strays by EIO (Excess is Ok), which no longer seems to be in business.

Their website (which has since been removed) had collections of graphic tees.  Their blog showed celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Calvin Harris spotted wearing their brand t-shirts.  I emailed the company with a 'cease and desist' letter, and showed proof that I was the creator of the image.  I asked them to remove all product containing my image unless they were willing to pay me royalties. The owner was apologetic and explained to me:

"I’m writing regarding the Heaven’s Below T-shirt that has been featured on our website.  Unfortunately as you correctly said, this was your photo and your artwork.  This was designed by a freelance designer that submitted the design to us.  We have contacted him and informed him of your e-mail.  He says that he came across the image on the internet, however cannot recall whereabouts this was from.  He naively and wrongly assumed that it was a vintage photo and without copyright.  It has come as a shock to receive an e-mail from you as as we promote ourselves to be a young, creative company that produces its own artwork and this situation is very embarrassing and unfortunate as we try to pride ourselves on being creative and obviously not using other peoples artwork.  I would like to express my sincerest apologies for what has happened." -James

After going back and forth through emails, the company removed the product containing my image and ensured that no reprints would be made. While I didn't take any serious legal action or aggressively demand any royalty payments, the experience shed light on how easy it was for businesses to steal creative content online and use it to create products that essentially create profit.  The fact that the copy of my image wasn't even the full resolution, and a designers was still able to make a quality product off of it, made me nervous to publish any work online.  For a while after that, I had put copyright watermarks across my images and I refrained from posting any detailed high res photos. These days, I've learned to embed all my files with copyright information and I hardly use watermarks unless I foresee an image being used on multiple media platforms, such as my portraits with my sister-in-law, Maria Kang, which was seen on TV and published to various news sites.

 

"What is copyright infringement?"

As a general matter, copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner. (Source: https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-definitions.html)
 

You're probably wondering why I'm writing about this and what exactly sparked this entry.  Recently, I was sitting next to a friend and I watched as he took a professional portrait off of Google and insert it directly into his business advertisement for his print ad, which was to be submitted at the end of the day, published immediately, and distributed across an entire island. The photographer was unknown to him. The quality of the image seemed very high end and professional, which is why I was concerned.  I voiced my opinion and pointed out that he was essentially stealing original content, and using it without permission or paying any licensing fees (usage right agreement between the photographer and client) to the copyright holder could result in repercussions. While I'm no expert in copyright law, I mentioned that the photographer will have every right to take legal action once his advertisement was published (after all, it's what I would do.)  To me, the simple act of removing the image after careful consideration and especially out of respect to the photographer, would have demonstrated responsible business practices.

I'm sure my friends intentions were innocent to begin with. All he wanted to do was finish his advertisement, and there I was delaying the process and giving my unsolicited advice. But even after I shared my knowledge of what could possibly happen, he still intentionally chose to commit copyright infringement.  He could have cared less.  Our discussion must have lasted just a few minutes...

He quickly disagreed with me and ended with, "Sorry, but I CHOOSE to do something unethical," while proceeding to design his advertisement (one of several ads used in his marketing campaign). Didn't blink an eye.  Instead, he was more concerned about meeting a midnight deadline.  The fact that he understood what he was doing was "UNETHICAL" clearly made me upset.

What probably seemed so small to him, was a really big deal to me, because I've been on that end; I've been that photographer stumbling across my own work being used without seeing any credit or royalties to my name.  I've seen these things happen time and time again to my friends (other fellow photographers); larger companies and corporations taking advantage of their content.  Most infringers don't really care, because all they have to do is issue an apology and remove the content, never mind that they used an unlicensed image in a campaign that may have made them a hefty profit.  I'm tired of people pretending that they didn't know something was copyright because they found it on Google and didn't know who created it. That still doesn't make it free, nor does it make it right to steal someones work.

I did a quick Google search when I went home, and found the photographer who created the image that my friend wanted to use. It was that easy. I also discovered he (the photographer) was represented by a legitimate artist agency who is responsible for licensing images for their artists.  In all seriousness, the agency could pursue legal action on behalf of their photographer. They probably would have their attorney contact my friend and issue an invoice (licensing fee, creative fee, damages, or whatever they see fit), and my friend would have to pay upfront or be taken to court for further legal action, because copyright infringement is actually a federal law.  Photographers who don't have a ton of money and are not represented by any agency may find this process a little more intimidating (like myself), and they would most likely let it go saying it was 'a learning experience'.  But, creative agencies see this happen everyday to their artists; to them, taking action against an infringer is like ordering a cup of coffee. No biggie.

At the end of the day, people will do what they want to do regardless of the consequences... probably because they've never had to pay any price for it and they continue to assume they never will.  They assume that the worst that could happen is a photographer sends a cease and desist letter (exactly what I did to Rakes & Strays for using my image on their t-shirts). Maybe that's it. But let's be real, how serious can it really get?

Some fun articles:
Photographer wins 1.2 Million Lawsuit Against Agence France-Presse and Getty Images
4 Court Cases That Boosted Photographers' Rights
$8k in Image Copyright Penalties: Bloggers, Beware!
 

 

"The legal penalties for copyright infringement are:"

1.  Infringer pays the actual dollar amount of damages and profits.
2.  The law provides a range from $200 to $150,000 for each work infringed.
3.  Infringer pays for all attorneys fees and court costs.
4.  The Court can issue an injunction to stop the infringing acts.
5. The Court can compound the illegal works.
6. The infringer can go to jail.
(Source: https://www.lib.purdue.edu/uco/CopyrightBasics/penalties.html)
 

To end, because this is getting pretty lengthy, I can honestly say that I appreciate it when someone goes out of their way to ask me for permission before they share or use any of my photos.  Whether it's via text, in person, by email, through a direct or private message... there's so many ways to contact me to simply ask, "May I please use this?"  Where in which I usually say 'yes' as long as credit is given. I lose respect for people who constantly take and take without asking.  ESPECIALLY businesses. It's selfish and irresponsible. It's worst when they purposefully continue to do it because they believe they'll never get caught. KARMA. That's all.