You’d think there’s enough evidence by now that stealing other people’s images is only for the truly dumb. Whether it’s one of the world’s largest news agencies facing a $123M copyright suit, a hipster freetard heisting a veteran photographer’s best-known image, or a British Labour government sabotaging their own election campaign, the sad and expensive results of photo theft are there for all to see.

But no, you just can’t help some people: and so last week two master copyright crooks simultaneously did an excellent job of proving Einstein’s First Theory of Stupidity.

In Arkansas USA wedding photographer and “lover of Jesus” Meagan Kunert had a nice little business going: or at least she did until Canadian wedding photographer Amber Hughes discovered her work on Kunert’s website. Hughes hit twitter, and soon other photographers were reporting that they too had been ripped off by Kunert. The story was picked up by David “Strobist” Hobby’s 65,000 followers, and within hours #fauxtographer was trending and an angry mob with torches and pitchforks were laying siege to every Internet property associated with Kunert, who promptly packed her bags and got out of cyberspace.

Her twitter feed was first to go, rapidly followed by her website, probably sunk under the weight of DMCA takedown notices. Kunert attempted a last stand at Facebook; after pulling her page for few hours she took a revivalist approach, relaunching it with the kind of apology associated with southern preachers who’ve been caught evangelising away from home:

“I hate that I have tarnished the name of Jesus in doing this, and I have got some serious soul searching to do over the coming days, weeks, and months. I know that God does not approve of my choices and that he hates hypocrites such as myself. I also know that God can take my brokenness and turn it around for His glory, which is what I intend to do. If you are the praying folk, I would like to ask you to pay [sic] for me and my family.”

But the Internet is not the deep south and the congregation at Facebook turned out not to be the praying kind: hundreds of comments later it was Kunert who had to pay, as her Facebook page disappeared again, this time probably for good.

Across the pond, just as the Internet was preparing the last rites for Kunert’s business, VoucherDigg set about digging their own grave. One of a myriad of UK companies offering vouchers for package holidays, VoucherDigg was advertising a cheap deal in Portugal from Low Cost Holidays. Naturally they wanted an appropriate image: it had to be from Portugal, and preferably close to the resort they were offering. Ideally it would also need to appeal to families with young children.

And so with impeccable logic VoucherDigg stole the last known photograph of Madeleine McCann, the three year old girl who five years ago disappeared only 25 miles from the holiday resort they were advertising, and the subject of one of the biggest UK and Portuguese news stories of recent times. What could possibly go wrong?

Retribution was public, swift and relentless. The story of VoucherDigg’s use of the McCann photo was rapidly plastered across the world’s media and Low Cost Holidays immediately disowned them. Worse, M’Learned Friends at the world’s scariest law firm announced that they would be handling the matter for the distraught parents. Within a day VoucherDigg shared Kunert’s fate. First their website groaned under the weight of traffic they had probably always dreamed of; then it disappeared as they discovered the reason for their newfound popularity. Finally the site, registered at the University of East Anglia campus in Norwich – presumably at the English As A Foreign Language Department – was replaced by a grovelling apology:

“We were sorry!

Our editing team made the mistake, that Madeleine McCann’s image was linked to the discount holidays to Portugal. We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing that occurred. We unreservedly apologise for the hurt suffered by Mr. and Mrs. McCann.

We regret our not acting faster to sort things out because of our editing team and management overseas not being concerned about the British social news and not realizing the wrongdoing. We realise that this explanation and simply apologising are not enough, because the hurt and damage are irretrievable. In the coming days, we shut down voucherdigg.co.uk to show our sincere apology.

We deeply apologies to Mr. and Mrs. McCann. We deeply apologies to the society. We also apologies to the lowcostholidays for the negative brand affect, who has nothing to do with this issue.”

There are a few lessons in all this for image thieves. For one, Jesus won’t save you: your business is going straight to hell. For another, brush up on your language skills so you can at least produce the literate apology you’re inevitably going to need. But most important of all, join the Meagan Kunert Bible Study Group Inc™ and brush up on your knowledge of the Eighth Commandment: because if you ignore that one the Internet will kick your ass.

Not what Pinterest were expecting you to pin. And pin and pin and pin....

Fence [noun]: “a receiver of stolen goods” – Merriam Webster.
“An individual who knowingly buys stolen property for later resale, sometimes in a legitimate market.” – Wikipedia.

Like every latest greatest thing on the interweb Pinterest has seen a sudden rush of subscribers simply because…well…because it’s the latest greatest thing on the interweb. Described as a “virtual pinboard”, Pinterest claims to “let you organize and share all the beautiful things you find on the web”. This is usually done by a “Pin It” button, a browser bookmarklet that copies content from a web page to the user’s Pinterest board. From there it can be copied by other Pinterest users to their boards, and from there…well, you get the idea.

Alarm bells should already be ringing, but that hasn’t prevented a stampede for the Pinterest bandwagon. BMI Airlines launched a Pinterest lottery; GUESS, a Pinterest contest. Amateur Photographer, the world’s oldest photographic magazine, began pinning iconic photographs from the likes of Magnum, Corbis and Getty Images. The UK’s National Portrait Gallery has likewise been pinning images from their collection. And millions of individuals have been trawling the web, pinning whatever takes their fancy.

And then the questions started. Like: who owns all this stuff anyway? And what does Pinterest plan to do with it all?

As the answers emerged – somebody else owns it, and Pinterest now claim rights to do whatever they want with it – some of the corporate pinners began to back off. First the Boston Business Journal pulled all their material after only one day on-site. Then Amateur Photographer’s pins quietly disappeared: unlike the BBJ the AP has declined to say why. The NPG material is still there, but after comments from photographers the NPG is now “looking at the implications for the Gallery”.

As concerns grew it became clear that for many people Pinterest’s real crime wasn’t just that they had created a system designed to encourage easy copyright infringement, but that they attempt to shift the blame for the ensuing infringements onto their users:

“YOU ACKNOWLEDGE AND AGREE THAT, TO THE MAXIMUM EXTENT PERMITTED BY LAW, THE ENTIRE RISK ARISING OUT OF YOUR ACCESS TO AND USE OF THE SITE, APPLICATION, SERVICES AND SITE CONTENT REMAINS WITH YOU.”

“you agree to defend, indemnify, and hold Cold Brew Labs, its officers, directors, employees and agents, harmless from and against any claims, liabilities, damages, losses, and expenses, including, without limitation, reasonable legal and accounting fees, arising out of or in any way connected with (i) your access to or use of the Site, Application, Services or Site Content, (ii) your Member Content, or (iii) your violation of these Terms.”

That may seem extreme, but it’s not unusual: many Internet sites have something similar, and since most users don’t read the terms of use nobody makes a fuss. But Pinterest got unlucky: one of their users was a lawyer, she did read the terms, and alarmed by what she found removed the material she had pinned and explained why. Naturally other lawyers picked up on the story, then other Pinterest users, and suddenly Pinterest found themselves in the eye of the web’s latest copyright storm.

There is of course a way to use Pinterest perfectly legally: just pin work you’ve created yourself or own the rights to. It’s true that in doing so you give Pinterest the rights to do anything they want with your work, including selling it. But if you’re a tireless self-promoter who doesn’t care how your work is used you may feel the publicity you get from Pinterest makes the trade-off worthwhile.

Except for one problem: that’s not what other Pinterest users – your audience – actually want you to do. So when tireless self-promoter and internet fauxtographer Thomas Hawk went on a “manic pinning episode of his own work” he was accused by one fan and Pinterest user of “masturbating in public” in using Pinterest for self-promotion.

And Pinterest agree, albeit in rather more restrained language:

“Avoid Self Promotion

Pinterest is designed to curate and share things you love. If there is a photo or project you’re proud of, pin away! However, try not to use Pinterest purely as a tool for self-promotion.”

So by their own admission Pinterest isn’t primarily for publishing original creative work, but republishing the work of third parties who almost inevitably will not have given permission.

Pinterest’s main defence in all this is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which provides Internet service providers with a measure of protection against prosecution as a result of copyright infringement by their users. But DMCA requirements are quite specific. They’re a package deal in which the provider is supposed to meet all the requirements, not pick and choose which parts they prefer, adding additional language to suit. However, according to intellectual property lawyer Connie Mableson, that’s exactly what Pinterest have done, leaving their DMCA defence looking distinctly creaky.

Even if Pinterest fix the wording of their DMCA offer there’s a further threat lurking: the DMCA is intended to protect providers some of whose users upload infringing content from time to time, not to protect companies whose entire raison d’être is copyright infringement. But that’s exactly the position Pinterest is in: without copyright infringement they have no business. Anyone at Pinterest who thinks that doesn’t matter needs to read this:

“We have spent millions of dollars on legal advice over the last few years and our legal advisers have always told us that we are secure and that we are protected by the DMCA which is a law in the US that is protecting online service providers of liability for the actions of their users.”

Those are the words of Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom, currently facing charges of racketeering, copyright infringement and money laundering. And what led to those charges? Why, Megaupload’s members were uploading and redistributing copyrighted material without permission – just like Pinterest’s members.

Econsultancy has asked: is Pinterest a copyright time bomb? The simple answer is yes. Pinterest is a cynical exercise that enables and encourages others to steal and is profiting from those thefts, while simultaneously attempting to plead innocence and place the blame on those who Pinterest encouraged to steal in the first place. But when the lawyers come calling, as they surely will, Pinterest may find that by shafting both creators and consumers of culture they have precious few friends left to defend them.

Screenshot showing Google’s display of EXIF metadata
Google’s display of EXIF metadata. Photo © Jeremy Nicholl 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Professional photographers have rarely looked kindly on Google. The search engine giant has long been the first port of call for image infringers, and the situation was only made worse by Google’s habit of stripping metadata from images, turning them into orphans.

But over the summer things have changed. In June Google launched Search By Image, and the following month began displaying EXIF data in their image search returns. The latter absolves Google of the orphaning charge, but it’s Search By Image that’s the real game-changer. Google have promoted SBI as a tool for image users to find images they might want to publish, and it could of course be used by such people to track down photo owners so that the image could be properly licensed. But its real value to photographers lies in its ability to track down images that have already been stolen and published on the web.

Previously image searching on Google was a very hit and miss affair. Enter some keywords, and depending what had survived Google’s metadata mangling and any changes by the publisher you might or might not find the published mage: more usually than often not. But with SBI you enter a low-resolution version of the image on Google’s servers and they search the web for matching images: if any are found they appear in the search returns. And since a visual search is more precise and doesn’t rely on matching keywords SBI invariably returns far more results than a keyword search.

Of course SBI isn’t the first reverse image search: TinEye, PicScout and others have been running for several years. But Google’s offering is immensely more powerful simply because they’ve already indexed far more of the web than their rivals. Not that SBI is comprehensive: TinEye for one sometimes finds images that Google doesn’t, so ideally one should use several services when searching for infringements. But all of these searches are time-consuming, and SBI finds so many more images than the competition that if you’re only going to use one reverse image search then SBI has to be it.

All this is very bad news for photo thieves. For years they’ve heisted images with impunity: the chances of being caught were low, and if caught the default defence was “I found it on Google and didn’t know who the owner was”. But that excuse disappears with the now easily viewable metadata, and the chance of being caught has moved from remote to likely, going on inevitable.

Faced with the near-certainty of being caught a smart thief would stop. Unfortunately most image thieves aren’t smart, but dumb and lazy: too lazy to create anything original themselves, and dumb enough to think they can get away with stealing indefinitely. They’re also stuck in the habit of thieving, encouraged by spurious and misleading advice on such nebulous concepts as “fair use”.

So instead of the logical outcome of Google’s changes – contact the photographer for permission or don’t use the image – the actual result is likely to be lots more legal action from photographers. And of course lots more squealing from thieves who get caught.

But that’s their problem. The first reaction of photographers who try SBI is generally fury at learning the previously unknown extent of the theft of their work. That’s hardly surprising, but really we should be pleased to see the tables being turned, albeit slowly.

Cory Doctorow: serious about copyright... Photo by Ed Schipul (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Question: what do you call someone who campaigns for anyone to be allowed to publish a photographer’s work without permission, and then complains when someone publishes his wife’s photographs without permission? Answer: Cory Doctorow.

Our old friends Irony and Schadenfreude had a field day last week when writer and wannabe copyright reformer Doctorow mounted the Boing Boing barricades to rant against “the awful Daily Mail, a hateful right-wing tabloid that keeps finding new bottoms to scrape.”

That’s an interesting image, but what was the reason for his ire? Apparently his wife Alice snapped an anorexic mannequin in Gap and uploaded the image to TwitPic; Doctorow then published the photo at Boing Boing accusing Gap of “death camp chic”. The Mail, ever on the lookout for a good scandal, picked up on the story and called asking to use the image.

Despite their reservations about the Mail the Doctorows, after due consideration of, oh, a few seconds or so, decided the hateful right-wing tabloid could have the snap for a charity donation of £250. The Mail [part of Associated Newspapers, with 2010 operating profits of £42M] countered that was beyond their budget. Then the Mail did what the Mail does, and lifted the photo anyway – along with a few juicy quotes into the bargain.

Unsurprisingly the Doctorows were outraged, hence the Cory vent in which he accused the Mail of “ripping off” the picture, ending with a demand for £2,000 for two infringed images and the vaguely threatening words “updates to come, I’m sure”. But could this be the same Cory Doctorow that has spent most of his adult life campaigning for the weakening of copyright laws? The Doctorow that tours as a poster boy for Creative Commons licenses that allow photographers’ work to be used without permission? The one that “rips off” photographs for his own articles?

Well, er, yes; which is why a few of the responses to his article were less than kind, accusing him of hypocrisy. However the Doctorow fan boys, like Cory usually very much in favour of redistributing photographers’ work without permission, felt his pain and the comments were largely filled with suggestions that the Doctorows should call M’ Learned Friends. Although it would be highly entertaining to watch the Doctorows sue the Mail for copyright infringement that’s sadly not going to happen; or at the very least they’ll have to get in line.

For what the Doctorows overlooked is that in uploading the image to TwitPic they had already given away their image distribution rights long before the Mail came calling. As the rest of the Internet already knows, TwitPic signed a highly contentious deal with the World Entertainment News Network in May that gives WENN distribution rights to any images uploaded to TwitPic, and without any payment to the image owner. So if anyone is going to be suing the Mail it will be WENN, not the Doctorows. Interestingly the story disappeared from the Mail site over the weekend without the Doctorows’ knowledge, so it may be that WENN have already contacted the paper.

The final irony is that only hours after his Mail bitch-fest, Doctorow was busy ripping off photographs himself. On August 16th, the day of Doctorow’s rant, the Guardian ran a story from the Edinburgh Festival with a photograph by Murdo Macleod. And the following day there was a story about the Edinburgh Festival on Boing Boing, filed by Cory Doctorow and with that very same Murdo Macleod image. Doubtless Doctorow took time off from discussing the Mail with his lawyers to ask Macleod’s permission to use the image. If not he will have already calculated what he owes Macleod for “ripping off” the photo: his own going rate of £1,000 per image.

It’s clear that Doctorow, despite his carefully constructed image as a cutting-edge thinker on intellectual property matters, has a lot to learn when it comes to copyright. But last week should have provided a lesson simple enough for even Doctorow to grasp: when it comes to intellectual property and ripping off other people’s photographs, what goes around comes around.

In common with all Internet photography specialists I have written extensively on the recent Jay Maisel – Andy Baio legal controversy. And like other leading copyright experts I have concluded that a world in which entrepreneurs cannot use other people’s work for free is truly fucktarded™.

In posts such as “Photographer Jay Maisel Extorts [Opinion] $32500 Out Of Andy Baio”, “Photographer Jay Maisel Ties Andy Baio To A Chair And Pours Gasoline Over Him”, and “Photographer Jay Maisel Hires Tony Soprano To Put Andy Baio’s Head In A Vice” I revealed how one of the world’s wealthiest men plotted in his 70 room mansion to crush the dreams of a starving young artist. I also published the only eyewitness account of how Maisel personally “held his feet over the fire and tormented him and hung him upside down to shake $32,500 out of his pockets” in order to buy new a new couch to match the drapes in that mansion.

I am now shocked and distressed to learn that some readers may have misinterpreted these posts to imply that Mr. Maisel, rather than exercising his legal right to defend the copyright of his life’s work, was engaged in some kind of criminal protection racket. I have further become aware that I may have inadvertently led people to believe that I somehow disapprove of the legal settlement between Mr. Baio and Mr. Maisel.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

On the contrary, as the World’s Fourth Most Influential Photoblogger™, I welcome Mr. Maisel’s defence of his intellectual property, and his insistence on his right to be paid for the use of that property. Why, I myself in the past have campaigned long and hard to be paid with a byline in Forbes magazine.

I also wish to stress that my description of Mr. Maisel as “a hack photographer” and “the worst kind of artist” in no way implies that he fails to measure up to my own high standards. While Mr. Maisel cannot match my 60,000 publications on flickr, I recognise that his 55-year career shooting annual reports, magazine covers, advertising and more for clients worldwide is an accomplishment in its own right.

It is for these reasons that I am delighted to announce that I have now deleted all my previous posts on Mr. Maisel to make space for a permanent exhibition of his work on my blog at its new home in the Utah desert.

It would be entirely wrong to suggest that this sudden reverse ferret is a result of discussions with Messrs Sue, Grabbit and Runne, attorneys at law, or because my employers at Stone & Youngberg have torn me a new asshole.  On the contrary, as I wrote in one of the deleted posts, “as a blogger disclosure is important”; my attempt to hide the posts and pretend that none of this ever happened is a clear demonstration of my commitment to disclosure and transparency. It is also entirely consistent with what Mr. Baio himself has described as my questionable grasp of copyright law and leaps of logic, and my history of publicity seeking by making vicious and unfounded attacks that are subsequently withdrawn and replaced by a grovelling apology.

What I’m thinking…

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