Copyright Infringement and Digital Asset Theft

I recently discovered some plugins that let me search for my images on the Internet. What I found was shocking and disturbing. It seems that there is no respect for copyright ownership in the digital world. Somehow, this “free Internet” has led people to believe anything on the Internet is free for the taking. Imagine if people could just walk down the street and reach into any store window and take what they wanted. Well that is how it is on the Internet with digital assets. Since any webpage that can be displayed on a computer screen contains digital assets, it is practically impossible to stop them from being pirated. This is a great dilemma for artists.

Miami Skyline

For example, I have one image in particular which has been pirated an untold number of times. I found over 15 pages of Google search results for the image. It is an image of the Miami Skyline at sunset. It is a wonderful HDR image composed with multiple exposures taken over 30 minutes as the sun set. It was taken from a bridge with cars speeding by. I walked for over two miles to find the best location, set up my tripod, and waited for the lighting to change. In the digital darkroom I spent hours merging the images, tweaking the colors, retouching, manipulating the image details for composition, and enlarging about 1000% while retaining details. This is how fine art photography is made. It doesn’t pop out of an iPhone on Instagram. It is a very unusual image and its a 3 x 1 panoramic image; 72″ x 26″ at full scale. I posted the image 900px tall (3″ printed). Unfortunately this is a huge image on the Internet and it is easily repurposed, cropped, edited, etc. for web applications.

Miami Skyline – panoramic Fine Art Photography by Sam Dobrow, Miami, Florida

So here is my dilemma, I have very few inquiries about licensing the image but it shows up on all kinds of websites. The most egregious uses are for wallpapers, background images, and site-wide header images. Many times it is used on a Contact or Travel page for anything having to do with Miami. It is very popular with Realtors and travel companies who are too cheap to build a reputable website. People stretch and distort the image, they colorize or desaturate it, they crop it, and even move the birds as if to say, “I changed it so it is not copyright infringement”. Some of the things people do to my image makes me want to puke. It is distasteful, poorly designed, technically ruined; but similar enough to diminish the value of the original artwork in people’s mind.

Before the advent of image search it was impossible to find stolen images; but now it is fairly easy. I have found this image on sites ranging from Realtors, travel agencies, conventions, churches, and doctor offices to the US Department of Justice’s Miami Division of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms enforcement website. The worst of all places, I found it on accumulator sites where people can search for photos that others post with stripped copyright notices. The sites claim that each user is responsible for uploading non-copyrighted material so other users can download “public domain” images. People know the images were stolen and posted but still use them because “they didn’t know they were copyrighted”. These collector websites are digital marketplaces for stolen digital assets and it was difficult to track down the source of the copyright infringement – until now. I’ve found interesting Firefox extensions Who Stole My Pictures and Google Image Search which make it very easy to find stolen images.

Google Image Search

The tedious step is enforcement. It takes time to find the perpetrator and their contact information. Luckily Twitter, Facebook, and Linked-In make it much easier to verify contact information of website owners. Once an infringer is notified and quoted a price for licensing the image, the real fun begins. If they won’t pay the license fee, then they must take down the image or face legal action. In most cases, the damage has already been done and I would insist on a payment for actual usage – based on duration of infringement, estimate impressions, size of image, prominence of the image on the website, commercial value of the website, revenue intentions of the usage, etc. The cost for an infringement is three times the standard licensing fee unless the infringer can prove they got the image from an accumulator site which is not known for pirating images. Any reputable organization should hire a reputable website developer and together they should know when images are in the public domain or suspect they are pirated. TIP: If it looks really good, it is not in the public domain. Public domain images are easily found at Wikimedia Commons.

The problem with public domain media is that it is used everywhere and is not unique content. It may not be the most interesting content but it is free. If you really want high quality, unique images, hire a photographer or buy images from a stock library. That way you won’t find yourself being trashed on social media, facing an unbudgeted media purchase, or unwanted legal issues.