In an era when everyone totes a high performance point and shoot camera with them, handily incorporated into a global telecommunications device/pocket super-computer, the photographic image is everywhere, all the time. It fills up our social media feeds, it dominates our social interactions (parties, dates, weddings etc), it is omnipresent in all parts of our lives and all parts of our day. The end result of this is that the photographic image has never been more devalued than it is right now.
Facebook and Instagram are the main outlets for our newly discovered photographic obsession but they are merely the front-runners in a mind-bogglingly crowded photo-sharing marketplace. 500px, Pixoto, EyeEm, Viewbug, 1X, Flickr, VSCO, Google+, Panoramio, DeviantArt, ImageShack, Imgur, Behance, Photobucket, Shutterfly, SmugMug, Nat Geo Yourshot, TwitPic … it goes on and on and on. Billions and billions of photographs and all but a minuscule percentage of them forgotten about seconds after they get posted and likely never viewed twice.
However if you do manage to share a photo that goes viral, you will quickly discover that nobody gives a flying fuck who took it.
For a serious photographer (professional or otherwise) it is increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd. However if you do manage to share a photo that goes viral, you will quickly discover that nobody gives a flying fuck who took it. Shortly after your image crosses the boundary between non-viral and viral, a small army of locust-like photo-sharers will vacuum up your image, reshare it with no attribution whatsoever, reap a vast number of reshares and otherwise beneficial in-bound traffic and then move on to the next victim.
By way of example, let’s have a look at Earth Porn’s Facebook page. With just under 5million page likes, this photo sharing page could potentially change a photographer’s life. By channelling a huge number of people in the direction of the sucker person that took the photo, they could get sales of their photograph, attract new customers, land paid gigs with magazines, ad agencies or general business clients and generally raise their profile. Instead they get precisely fuck all.
Consider the image above. The page owners at Earth Porn uploaded this image, completely unattributed and in the space of two hours it had accumulated 10,607 likes and (more importantly), 1,101 shares. The caption lists the location (though these are often wrong) and that’s it – no mention of the person that stood there and took the shot and who owns all the rights to this image (he goes by the name of Wolfgang Staudt incidentally). Complain all you want, the page owners don’t give a shit because even if you do pursue the matter through Facebook officially, by the time the matter’s resolved they’ll have ripped off a thousand other photographers in exactly the same way. To make matters even more laughable they include on their page this text, “This page claims no credit for any images posted on this site. All copyright goes to their respective owners.” As if that somehow excuses or makes legal, what they are doing. Think they’re an isolated example of poor behaviour? Think again.
This is a page with about 150,000 likes – nowhere near as big as Earth Porn, but exactly the same behaviour – an amazing photo, no attribution whatsoever (it’s by Stefan Hefele), a shitty caption and a large amount of onwards sharing which is of no benefit to the actual photographer at all.
There are thousands of these sorts of pages on Facebook alone and it is certainly not an isolated example. Over on Twitter the situation is every bit as bad. Our friends @Earth_Pics operate there too, with an account with over 2million followers. And guess what? Day in and day out they post copyrighted photographs with absolutely no attribution to the copyright-holding photographer whatsoever.
Again, there are thousands of photo-sharing accounts on Twitter and I’ve yet to encounter one that acknowledges the people that actually took the photos their shitty accounts thrive on.
The situation then, is terrible. If you’re a photographer or an aspiring photographer trying to make a name for yourself or to get better known, then there is nothing to be gained in being featured by any of the photo-locust sites. Since no identifying information is included in an image that might send some web traffic your way; no name, no website, no Twitter account, no Facebook page – someone would literally have to do a reverse image lookup on your photo to find you. In fact that is exactly what I had to do on the two images at the top of this page.
If you upload your images to any of the usual photo-sharing sites … then you can fully expect a photo-locust account to pick it up and share it as if it was their own.
I would also like to make it clear that I am not talking about Facebook shares or Twitter retweets or their equivalent on other services. Those are of course completely fair game and to be encouraged since they point back to your account. I am talking about posts that originate on social media sites using copyrighted photographs and which have no attribution.
If you upload your images to any of the usual photo-sharing sites (Facebook, 500px, Instagram etc) and that image is half-decent, then you can fully expect a photo-locust account to pick it up and share it as if it was their own. Sure, you could include a prominent watermark in the image, but generally speaking prominent watermarks only make photos look terrible and besides, anyone with a copy of Photoshop and five minutes with the clone stamp can remove it. So don’t waste your time.
You could share it at a much reduced resolution/dpi too, but this will get you nowhere. Most images are viewed on mobile devices anyway and even the most compressed photos look okayish when viewed at postage stamp size on a smartphone. You could also choose to not share it at all, but this rules out any possibility of publicity via the Internet and seems like surrender to me.
Over on Facebook you can find all the information you need here and there’s a handy copyright infringement form which is located here. Instagram being a Facebook property these days, the exact same systems are in use there and you can find the Instagram specific form here. Google Plus’s takedown page is located here. You can find similar takedown pages on all social media sites and, speaking from my own experience, they systems they have put in place do work though the cogs sometimes take a little while to turn.
If you have concerns about proving you’re the copyright owner of an image, then you might like to protect your image invisibly using a digitally embedded watermark. You can find a free service called uMark here. There are also specialist protection/reverse lookup services like MyPicGuard, which will reveal who’s helped themselves to your images and enable you to issue DMCA takedowns against them. And don’t forget DigiMarc which has come bundled with Photoshop since the dawn of time.
There are some rare occasions of Facebook pages and Twitter accounts doing the right thing. Tourism bodies, which get by almost entirely by pimping photographs supplied by keen photographers (amateur, serious and pro included) tend to do the right thing. And if any of the admins of the locust accounts would like a template for doing it the right way, look no further than Australia.com’s Facebook page.