Ripped Off?

A week ago Tuesday, I popped over to and happened upon a story about the Montreal Metro. Blah blah blah, whatever, and then I noticed the thumbnail image at the top of the story. Not a huge picture, just a stock image that they use for Metro stories when they have no story-specific images. It was a “photo illustration” of a moving Metro car overlaid with a photo of an exterior Metro sign.

The background part of the image looked familiar. Then I realized; holy crap! That’s my picture!

What I found on

I had posted the original version of the image on the Monday Morning Photo Blog five years ago (January 17, 2005). I have never sold reproduction rights to it, nor has anyone asked me to use it for any purpose. And it is not a Creative Commons image (why it is not is a subject for another day.) Written very plainly on the page where the image appears is the text “All photographs taken, and copyright owned, by Ed Hawco. Please ask if you want to use any of these images for any purpose.

My original copyrighted image.

Clearly, this was a rip off. But what kind of a rip off? Possibilities include:

  1. as a corporation clearly and callously lifted the image from my photo blog without asking for permission.
  2. A specific half-wit at, bucked policy by clearly and callously lifting the image from my photo blog without asking for permission.
  3. obtained permission to use the image from someone other than me; a third party (person or agency) who stole my photo and is selling it as their own.

There are other possibilities too, but those are the most likely. I decided against number 1, which is the possibility that most knee-jerk reactors pounce on. My reason is simple: is not a thinking entity; it’s a corporation made up of people, and in all likelihood they have a policy against ripping off copyrighted work. Thus, if it was taken without permission, it was most likely a function of one rogue graphics dude who is too lazy, arrogant, or incompetent to go by the rules and ends up putting the company at risk by doing things that are stupid and illegal.

The situation described in number 3 is certainly not unheard of. In fact, that happens way more often than you probably think. However, I settled on number 2 as the most likely explanation.

Thus settled, I immediately sent an email to the managing editor and informed her of the situation, letting her know that I was not angry but she needs to know she’s using copyrighted material without permission. And by the way, permission for such an image used in this context is astoundingly cheap.

The managing editor emailed me back within a couple of hours to apologize, and to inform me that the image has been removed from the web site. She told me that 80% of the photos they use are taken by their own photographers, and the other 20% are used with permission. She doesn’t know how this one got into their database, but she would look into it. (Judging by some file data I extracted, it looks like they’ve been using the image for at least seven months; it was put in the database on my birthday last June.)

I replied by thanking her for addressing the situation, and I reassured her again that I wasn’t angry. I told her that the price for usage rights was in the range of “lunch money.”

She emailed me back later to apologize again, and to reiterate that they take these issues seriously. She also informed me that she has escalated the issue to the head office in Toronto to ensure that everyone is aware of the rules and to make sure it doesn’t happen again. She never brought up the possibility of paying. (But why would she when she has a ready store of free images? Although it should be said that the image they replaced it with is dead boring.)

The reason why I’m telling you this is not because I want to slag (In fact, I commend them for their quick and decisive reply.) Rather, I want to make the point that in this hot-tempered atmosphere of copyright sensitivity, at a time when the world is neatly cleaved into the old-school copyright defenders and the new-school “free sharing” enthusiasts, each side should relax a bit and not get all Balkanized. Each school of thought has merit and there is room for both.


  • Copyright defenders should not get all paranoid that every bit of file sharing and “creative commons” material represents some crazy communist plot to rip the very cash from their pockets.
  • Free sharing enthusiasts should recognize that not all creative effort is a gift to the world and that some people need to make a living this way.

And that, dear readers, is my oversimplified view.

It’s just a starting point really. In my various travels around the web I am constantly shaking my head at the paranoid, silly, reactionary, and just plain stupid thinking of people on both sides of the fence. Yes, the world is changing! Adapt!

We need to find a way to keep both approaches in play and in balance. By not overreacting (as a few people who I told this story to on the day it occurred did), by understanding that (a) in this context the image doesn’t have much monetary value, so I’m not really out anything, (b) the “perpetrator” is a big corporation that probably has very strict rules that were broken by one rogue, (c) there’s no point in getting all hot blooded over it, and (d) by telling this story here, I am doing my little bit to calm these choppy waters and to find my place in a world where most creative work is cheap, but that cheapness opens up other possibilities.

13 thoughts on “Ripped Off?

  1. Yikes. They have been using the photo for months and think removing the photo from their website is an acceptable resolution? Not so. Send them an invoice!

  2. Blork, I am with you on this one, extreme center, hey!

  3. Interesting (and refreshing) to read an opinion in the middle. (I think if it had been my picture I would mostly have been upset that credit wasn’t given, not much more than that.) I’m somewhat confused/unsure of my opinion on the whole thing. I was trained to be a lawyer, after all, but I’m not one, and I do share an awful lot (though not in large formats when it comes to pictures, and I will rethink my habits when I get a camera that allows me to show what I actually want to show). But for now, I simply claim the right not to have a clear opinion (I find that space has shrunk over the past decade — everyone and their godmother seem to be on one side of every issue or other, and that’s just not possible, we can’t all be informed that well about everything!). I humbly say… I just don’t know. (But since that’s ignorance, which is my starting point, things can only improve from here!)

  4. I had something similar a while back, where one of my mascot photos showed up on a minor league baseball team’s site. I e-mailed them to ask what was up, and the answer I got back was: new employee, inherited this computer from the previous holder of the job, found this image among others in a folder and assumed it was one of theirs. They took it down stat (like you, I would have been happy to have licensed it to them cheap, but they were basically “pass”).

  5. it’s not the same background… did they overimpose something on top of the car to make it look yellowy?

  6. Carl, the fact that your situation was so similar to mine reinforces my position. The reality is that photographs are ubiquitous these days. Everybody takes photographs and many of them end up on Flickr, Myspace, Facebook, blogs, you name it.

    Then you have the web, where linking to other people’s images and text is part of what it’s all about. Who among us who has a blog HASN’T borrowed a picture from some other blog or web site when making a blog post? It happens all the time! (Although I will say that when I do so, I always give credit to the source, but that’s because I’m pretty old school and because I’ve had lots of my stuff used by others and I always appreciate the nod when it comes.)

    We are so inundated by photographs that it’s easy to forget that some of them come with strings attached. But it’s not always obvious what those strings are and which photos have them.

    When it comes to the “value” of a photograph there are a number of factors in play. They include (but are not limited to):

    – Uniqueness. (Is the photograph really unique or are there hundreds others just like it?)

    – Source. (Did the photo come from a professional photographer who put the image on the web as part of a gallery or portfolio, or is it just a snapshot that someone put on their blog?)

    – Need. (Does the person/entity who is using the image really need THAT SPECIFIC image, or will any similar one do just as well?)

    – Use. (Is the photo going to be used as the anchor image for an international advertising campaign? A banner for a small company’s website? One of hundreds in the “fan” section of a second-rate rock band? To illustrate something on some person’s blog?)

    It’s the interchange of these factors that determine the value (in terms of money) of a photograph. After all, if I went to and said “that image of the metro car is unique and I’m a professional photographer and I demand you pay me $500 to be able to use it!” I’d be laughed out the door. Because does not NEED that SPECIFIC image. There are tons of others available for free.

    But if they were doing a story about obesity and Metro train drivers (the driver in the image is overweight), then suddenly their NEED changes, and they might be more interested (although they probably wouldn’t pay $500). However, if they found a similar image on Flickr and the owner of it was willing to give it to them for $10 then I’d be out of luck unless I asked $5. But on short notice are they going to find another interesting photo of an overweight metro driver? Probably not. Cha-ching!

    And so it goes. The problem is that photographs are extremely easy to make and distribute, and there are billions of them readily available. Thus the four-ball juggling act.

    All that said, people and corporations really should be vigilant about making sure they are not reproducing copyrighted material, and should make an effort to give credit when possible. Those two things are separate from the issue of the monetary value. In this case (as in Carl’s case by the sound of it), it was human error, and there’s no real point in getting angry.

  7. Brem, yes, they photoshopped it up. (I suspect the person who did the photoshopping is the culprit who grabbed the image without worrying about copyright.)

  8. I suspect that the designer who photoshopped it was thinking that their alterations were enough to make it different enough to escape copyright issues. Um, no.

    I’m with Kathryn, tho’. I’d send an invoice. An invoice, mind you, for the lunch $ amount. I mean, they’ve been using it for months. Just taking it off doesn’t seem acceptable in light of that. They should pay your very reasonable fee and put your credits on the photo and count their lucky stars you have a reasonable and accommodating opinion on the matter.

  9. In retrospect, I kind of wish I had sent in an invoice. But I’ve already had the discussion with the managing editor, so it would be a cheap shot to send it now.

  10. I’d like to hear the reasons why you don’t make the images available under a Creative Commons license (either in a comment response here, or a separate post if it’s lengthy).

    As a software developer, I always release anything I create on my own time under an open source license, because:

    – I have already taken much more open source software than I can ever hope to give back
    – By making it freely available to others, the software itself may be improved by others using it and providing: bug fixes, new features, or suggestions for improvement
    – Open-sourcing software provides a (hopefully positive) public record of my skills
    – Most importantly: It is an easy choice to make, because there is simply no culture of paying for the kind of software that I’m likely to develop on my own time (i.e. libraries or plugins used exclusively by other software developers)

    The above should not be read as “I make my stuff freely available, so you should too”. For me, there’s really no dilemma, because there’s no potential revenue sream being sacrificed when I choose to release it under an open source license, so it’s an easy choice to make.

  11. Donal, I applaud your open source way of thinking. Particularly as it relates to software. It’s a bit different when it comes to something like a photograph, because the goal of a photograph usually isn’t to release it so that someone else can make it better.

    I’ll give you the short answer, which I might expand upon later in a full blog post. It’s basically this: I like the idea of Creative Commons, but I find the various iterations and variations to be convoluted and not well understood by most people, which makes its value questionable. For the most part, I’m glad to have anyone use my images for creative purposes, and I’m happy to lend them to people who want to use them in artistic pursuits. But not necessarily if it’s both a creative and a commercial endeavor.

    I know that there are ways to chop up CC licenses so it accommodates all those ifs, buts, and maybes, but like I said, it’s complicated. I’d rather just manage it myself.

    So if you and your two-bit jug band wanted to use one of my images for your CD cover, I might just give it for free. But if you’re Bon Jovi or something, who is going to make $30 million on the album, there’s no fraking way you’re getting it for free.

    I allow free usage more than I ever get paid. When people put one of my images on their blog and give attribution, I not only “let it slide,” I feel flattered. I’ve allowed my images to be used in various presentation and other such things simply because the person asked me nicely. And there’s the key (and I know it’s old fashioned); they asked me.

    If had asked me first, I probably would have let them use it for free, because I know there is no commercial value in that context. I just would like to be asked, and acknowledged.

  12. I agree with Blork. I think it totally depends what they’re going to use it for. A while back some nice person emailed me and asked if he could use my photos of Jean-Talon Market. Of course I said yes! But he could have just lifted them and I probably never would have known.

    But like Blork, I feel flattered that he would feel that they were worthy enough to want to use them for his site! And even if he HAD outright-stolen them, I might have felt a bit miffed, but on the other hand, if his site was FOR PROFIT, then out would come the checkbook for the lawyer.

    I don’t know, Blork. But opportunities don’t come along that often. I say sue for a million, then take whatever they settle for. Fuck “lunch money.”

  13. They asked you. How simple that is, and how sane it feels to me! I remember when I was growing up, there were people who took walks on our land, picked our berries and even camped! Now, granted our land was big enough and private enough those people weren’t sure who the land belonged to (here’s a hint: see that house? Yup, the only one around. Knock on the door and ask!). And granted, for the most part they did no damage and left no crap. Yet I remember my parents being upset, every time but one: the ONE time people came and asked. My parents were *happy* to say yes!

    Art work or land: it’s a matter of basic respect! (You say you’re old school? These days I feel like respect is as “old school” as it gets. Sigh!)

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