Stop me when this sounds familiar. Photographer takes pictures. Uploads pictures to TwitPic, the photo-hosting site associated with Twitter. News organisation sees pictures and likes them enough to steal. When caught out news organisation says – all together now – “images on TwitPic are in the public domain”.

When documentary filmmaker Emily James uploaded pictures of chaotic scenes at a London polling station during the recent British general election several newspapers contacted her and bought the images. One paper that didn’t make contact was the Daily Mail, a publication long renowned for its robust approach to unlawful behaviour: so Emily was surprised to discover three of her pictures on the Mail website the following day.

After taking advice James sent the Mail an invoice for £1,170: three pictures at the recommended National Union of Journalists rate of £130 each, multiplied by three for use without her “knowledge, consent or permission”.

That did encourage the Mail to contact her, and online picture editor Elliot Wagland wrote back, taking a page from the Agence France Presse playbook:

“Unfortunately we cannot pay the amount you have requested, these images were taken from TwitPic and therefore placed in the public domain, also after consultation with Twitter they have always asked us to byline images by the username of the account holder.”

That’s all rubbish of course, not least the claim of consultation with Twitter. James’ pictures were hosted at and ripped from TwitPic, an entirely separate company with their own very clear Terms of Service that forbids third party use of images without the owner’s permission.

This isn’t the first time the Mail have been caught with their sticky fingers in the social media pie. In April they lifted a picture by Clive Flint from his Flickr stream to illustrate another election story, making the paper’s claim to the British Journal of Photography that it was not their policy to breach photographers’ copyrights look rather shaky.

And of course it’s not just the Mail. In January Peter Zabulis caught the formerly well-respected Independent helping themselves to his images on Flickr. When he first contacted the paper their response was, in BoingBoing’s words, “tough shit”:

“We took a stream from Flickr which is, as you know, a photo-sharing website. The legal assumption, therefore, is that you were not asserting your copyright in that arena. We did not take the photo from Flickr, nor present it as anything other than as it is shown there.
I do not consider, therefore, that any copyright has been breached or any payment due.”

It was only after Zabulis threatened legal action that the paper eventually acknowledged the truth and paid up.

Contrary to the Mail’s assertion in the BJP it’s clear that as circulations tumble and photo budgets approach near zero the policy of many newspapers is to trawl social media sites, grab all they can and hope they don’t get caught. Realistically it’s not a bad business plan: for the few times when the culprit is forced to pay up there will be many more occasions when the photographer doesn’t pursue the issue, or is not even aware of the theft.

Awareness of such incidents may be about to become even more difficult. Publishers are watching closely the paywall experiment for the Times and Sunday Times, and if Rupert Murdoch’s plan succeeds it is certain that many of his rivals will follow suit. And as the paywalls go up the chances of discovering copyright infringements will go down: it’s unlikely that any of the above incidents would have been noticed if the publications concerned had paywalls in place.

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6 Responses to “We Stole Your Pictures, Now We’re Going To Hide Them”

  1. I thought that was only a problem of Russia. When I found one of my images on local hotel’s website, they said “You placed your photo in the Internet and therefore we can use it as we want”. This is really a typical idea of Internet as a hub of free content. But I didn’t know it was such a major problem in Uk too.

  2. We have a chance to track illegal use of our photo, if the publisher is local, or at least is in the same country with us. But what the chance for Russian photographer of tracking illegal use in India, say, or Italy? Or, how can French photographer find his pictures in some local Ukranian newspaper??

  3. Sean Strong Sean Strong says:

    Interesting article. I just found your site while I was in the middle of doing research using google. I just wanted to let you know I like this web site and continue doing what youre doing. And dont forget… enjoy the adventure.. dont over-focus on the end result. Take care, Sean Strong

  4. […] Mainstream publications looting Twitter and Flickr? The Internet barely notices. Porn baron rips off schoolgirl? The Internet just shrugs. News agency steals photos then tries to sue photographer? The Internet yawns. Yes, all these incidents have caused some comment, but the controversies have largely remained confined to those directly affected or people who take an active interest in such things: certainly none has achieved the viral status of the Cooks Source scandal. […]

  5. […] Mainstream publications looting Chirrup &#1072nd Flickr? the Internet barely notices. Porn baron rips off schoolgirl? the Internet &#1112&#965&#1109t shrugs. News agency steals photos th&#1077n tries t&#959 sue photographer? the Internet yawns. Yes, &#1072ll th&#1077&#1109&#1077 incidents h&#1072&#957&#1077 caused some comment, but the controversies h&#1072&#957&#1077 largely remained confined t&#959 those directly unnatural or people who take an active interest &#1110n such equipment: &#1089&#1077rt&#1072&#1110nl&#1091 none h&#1072&#1109 achieved the viral status &#959f the Cooks Source scandal. […]

  6. […] May Emily James’ polling station images were swiped from TwitPic for a Mail “election night shambles” story. James billed the paper: […]

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