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.