Whose art is it, anyway?: Not everything on the Web is free for the taking, artists say

Whose art is it, anyway?: Not everything on the Web is free for the taking, artists say

February 23rd, 2014 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

One way to protect an image is to put a watermark on it, as local photographer Steve Hankins does with his work.

Photo by Photo: Steve Hankins


There are several websites -- copyright.gov, computerhope.com, photoattorney.com -- that offer tips on ways to protect your images. Among the most common are:

• Register your copyrights to your photos. Artists serious about protecting an image should also consider registering it with the copyright office for $35, Corcoran said. If a work is registered within three months of release to the public or prior to infringement, artists may recoup up to $100,000, plus attorney's fees. Without either a watermark-tampering claim or registration, artists can collect only the money they actually lost due to the infringement, which may not amount to much.

• Put a copyright notice on or near the online images.

• Make it hard for people to grab your images by doing things like disabling the user's ability to right-click on it.

• Make sure you are not giving up your rights to the image when you post it somewhere else.

• Prosecute violators.

For photographers like Steve Hankins, the good news is that Internet has opened up a whole new way to let people know about his work.

The bad news is that the Internet has opened up a whole new way for people to steal his work.

"Years ago, when there was not so much photography available to people, you could make a good living off of [selling] stock photography," he says.

Hankins shoots weddings, portraits and landscapes. Thanks to the Internet, if someone wants to include a waterfall on their web page or blog, they turn to sites like Hankins' and just do a screen grab, where they copy -- or grab -- his image and paste it onto their website. And they do it without paying or giving him credit for it.

While it doesn't make Hankins happy -- or money -- he is philosophical about it.

"The truth is, you've got to face the fact that, if they want to get it, they will."

Still, he has taken the step of putting watermarks, digitally placing a logo or company name on the image, to protect his works.

"The main reason is, I figure if they put it on their website, at least people will see my logo," he says. "Of course, anyone with a decent amount of Photoshop know-how can take it off."

And it's not just photographers who feel the bite of Internet theft. Painters, poster makers and other visual artists have seen their works copied and sold without their permission or, in some cases, even knowledge.

Local painter Brent Sanders knows people grab images of his work from his web page to use on their own social media pages or websites, but so far he doesn't know of anyone trying to profit from his work, at least not locally.

"The art community in Chattanooga is fairly small and I'm able to keep a pretty tight eye on it, or people will see it and tell me. It's not been a major issue for me, but people do have the assumption that it is just there for the grabbing."

Andrew DeGraff, a visual artist in Philadelphia, Pa., has seen his "movie maps," visualizations of the plots of films such as "Star Wars" show up all over the Web, most without his permission. Film bloggers caught the fancy of his works in December 2012, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, and they later showed up on Slashfilm.com and the blogs of Wired and Fast Company magazine, among others. Some got his permission to use the work, he said, but not all.

And some sites were actually selling prints of his works without his OK. While that infuriated him, he was even more upset that the prints were cheaply made and low quality. His lawyer drew up a cease-and-desist letter which threatens to sue.

"That's been effective," he told the newspaper. "The problem is that really backing up that threat is tough and expensive."

Andy Mitchell, a Chattanooga photographer, also has had his lawyer send out a cease-and-desist letter to a person who used one of his landscape photos on a blog without permission. He wishes people would just ask.

"I gave them a couple of days to take it off," he says. "I could have pressed the issue, but I think the whole point was, if they had just called to ask, I'd probably have let them have it. Taking it and not asking is getting worse and worse."

The laws governing such things are somewhat fluid, though they are becoming more and more clear, even if enforcing them is difficult. Just like music in the digital age, a lot of people just assume that all electronic images are free for the taking. They're not.

One of the more well-known cases involved artist Shepard Fairey who, in 2008, posterized a photograph of Barack Obama that was taken by Associated Press freelance photographer Mannie Garcia. The AP wanted compensation for the money Fairey made selling the posters -- known as "Hope" -- but Fairey claimed that, under the fair use doctrine, he was entitled to make the poster. "Fair use" says copyrighted material can be used for such things as criticism, journalism, teaching and research.

Fairey was eventually sentenced to two years of probation after it was discovered he'd lied and destroyed documents that proved he knew what he was doing was wrong.

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, artists are entitled to damages up to $25,000 if someone removes their watermark and tries to sell their work. Artists also can copyright their work, which makes them eligible to recoup up to $100,000 in some infringement cases.

But, whether you're an artist or just the general public, posting a photograph of something you've shot on certain sites like Instagram can put them into the public domain, making them free for the taking.

Taking for personal gain is one thing, Mitchell and Haskins say. Taking it and not crediting the creator is another issue, and taking it and representing it as your own takes it to another level.

Emily Hennen is a Notre Dame High School graduate who works as an associate editor dealing primarily with celebrity news and updates for the news and entertainment website buzzfeed.com in New York City. While Buzzfeed staff members do some original reporting, they also use photographs from a number of sources.

Hennen says a good part of her day is spent tracking down the image's creator to seek permission to use it or, in some cases, such as celebrity photos taken by professional photographers, to pay for it.

"We have different policies for different types of images, but usually the first thing we do is reach out to get permission," she says.

That becomes more difficult if an image has been "shared" by many people on a variety of social media sites like Instagram and Facebook.

"We try very hard to track it back as far as we can and to show those sources or links," she says.

In some cases, the artists have included permission, acceptable uses and limitations via such services as Creative Commons. Artists can indicate such details as whether the work can be modified, redistributed or used in certain regions, for example.

Hennen received some local media attention back in November for a Buzzfeed piece she compiled called "31 Instagrams That Prove Chattanooga Is One Of The Most Beautiful Cities Ever." It was shared more than 4,000 times on Facebook and retweeted more than 450 times. The photographers were all given credit for their images.

"I think some of [the photographers] were surprised maybe that I used their photos, but they were all posted as public."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.