Further Thoughts On Photography Theft

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This story has certainly been a huge point of discussion in the photographic community. I’ve watched comments roll in and the range of opinions is quite stark. Some people have been much more forgiving of Meagan Kunert with regard to her actions, even agreeing to continue to use her for their weddings while others have been extremely critical, going so far as to say she should be criminally prosecuted (if that is possible).

Gary Fong weighed in and his remarks are quite interesting:

Hey this is really serious business. If you don’t assert your rights, then someone else can assert that you’ve abandoned your mark. I had to go through this nine years ago – we had a FEDERAL JURY TRIAL. A photographer took my name, and used my image on the internet. We sued, and the jury awarded me $240,000. Just google, “gary fong teresa halton trial” or

http://ca.findacase.com/research/wfrmDocViewer.aspx/xq/fac.20010321_0000020.NCA.htm/qx

Did I get paid? Yes. The day of the order, I got a check from her insurance company. Had she not been insured, we could’ve taken her house and seized her income.

He also wrote:

Hey if any of the affected photographers are interested, please feel free to contact Ed Schwartz (era@cph.com). He specializes in this type of thing and he was my lawyer in our successful federal lawsuit over the same thing. He is really passionate about this kind of theft, and if the photographers band together (called a multi-plaintiff lawsuit) the cost wouldn’t be too super high. To the photographers, you don’t know how much your reputation has been damaged yet, and having a court decision to publish is a great way to show those in the future not to try it. After all is said and done, if you just let this one go – it’ll happen again, and you won’t have much of a claim in the next lawsuit because you acquiesced this time, so you’re showing the world you don’t really care.

Strong words to be sure. At first, I thought a heartfelt apology might be good enough.

But I think Gary may be right. As I said in my previous post, this kind of thing hurts everybody because it causes trust issues with potential clients, particularly if you’re an unknown photographer. If I’m an art director and want to hire Zack Arias, I’m confident in two things:

A. The work he has posted on his website is his

B. Because of A, I’m not hesitant to hire him

It’s the lack of trust in my view, that sends people to cheap studios like Sears and JC Penney for family portraits. At least there, the customer knows what they’re going to get (even if it sucks).

The issue may be more rampant than we know. Another case was uncovered recently as well (h/t Peter Zack)

So there are a few things to consider:

  • Protect your work – I’m my own worst critic so I don’t watermark my images because I think, “Nobody is going to take my stuff.” And that may be true. There are thousands of websites with great photos that people can steal. But it can happen. And as photographers we’re in a position where we may have to start placing our watermark in areas where it cannot be cropped or using a faded watermark over the entire image.
  • Have somebody you trust help you to be accountable – The temptation to make big bucks making photographs is out there. My friend and neighbor, Daniel Stancil is an amazing wedding photographer. His wedding packages start at $2600 and go up to nearly $6000. Some wedding photographers charge upwards of $20,000 for their services. Money has a way of making people do things they normally would not do. Trust me. I speak from personal experience on this front. If you want more details, feel free to contact me (it has nothing to do with photography but money overall). Having somebody that can hold you accountable will keep you from making those poor decisions. Meagan’s husband was apparently, completely unaware of what she was doing.
  • Don’t take shortcuts – No photographer you have ever heard of has not worked hard at improving their craft. Contrary to what so many people say, photography is art. It takes skill and lots of practice to be good at it. Yes, some will be more naturally gifted than others for a variety of reasons. But that is not the case for most of us. Look at the work you did 4-5 years ago compared to what you’re doing today. Is it better? Chances are, it is. That didn’t just happen.
  • Be willing to help newer photographers – If there is anything I cannot stand, it is the refusal of pros or people with long experience being unwilling to offer assistance to somebody just getting into the field. If you think a new photographer is a threat to your business and livelihood, that is a reflection of you, not the person looking for some mentoring. New photographers turned away by potential mentors and being told, “It will cost you $1000 to learn from me” (I am not bashing workshops, but some people are asking for money for just about everything these days) may be the ones who look for those shortcuts I warned about.

What do you think about a lawsuit and what would you add to the list I provided?

Chris B - May 11, 2012 - 11:23 am

Well I’ll chime in as a long standing ‘Pro’ who isn’t particularly keen on teaching ‘newbies’ how to take money out of my pocket. I built my business from scratch, i didn’t ask for help from anyone and I paid good money for the relevant training courses. 300+ weddings later, I’m still here.

A ‘new’ photographer is obviously not a threat to my business, but they have the potential to become a threat, especially if I help them. How is that good business acumen to train them? Our knowledge is our most valuable asset, it should be worth 10 times what we actually charge clients to use it. Yet we pretty much give it away. What other business’s so freely train their own future competition, it’s business madness? I consider myself a businessman first, photographer second.

We’re the one’s devaluing our industry, not the newbies, by giving our knowledge away. It shouldn’t be easy or cheap to become a ‘pro’.

BTW this whole episode could have been avoided had various photographers watermarked their online work (and I’ll be the first to admit I don’t watermark some online stuff).

Meghan - May 11, 2012 - 1:42 pm

I don’t really know. I mean, if someone actually has losses, I guess suing her would make sense. But otherwise, it just sounds like vengeance, and I think she’s screwed herself over enough. Anyone who googles her from now on will see the b acklash of this. For the rest of her life. This will affect not just photography, but any other job she tries to do from now on. So suing just to stick it to her….I’m not for that.

I also think people should just put a logo on their photos if it’s on their professional site to protect themselves from this. Granted, I often don’t put it in a place that will distract from the picture, which means it could be cropped out. Something to think about, I suppose.

As for whether or not photographers should charge to help each other out…l feel like it depends on how much help is being given. If it’s an entire class’s worth, then yeah, it should be charged. If it’s just someone shooting someone else a simple question via email or a blog, there is no reason to charge for that!

I think people need to realize the value of other people’s time though and be willing to pay for that time if they want in depth teaching. Not only is it the time of the class, but the time (years for most) that it took the teacher to acquire that knowledge that they are turning around and handing out to others. That is valuable and shouldn’t be free.

In the same way, I won’t charge a friend for asking me to snap a photo of them. But if they want me to set aside an entire hour to take pictures….that’s a photoshoot, and I do that at a cost. People should use common sense when judging the cost of what is being asked (both the person asking and the person charging).

Ptz1961 - May 11, 2012 - 2:48 pm

Chris, I’ll respectfully disagree on some points. Where our industry has an issue is the huge spread of online teachers and seminars. Sites like CreativeLive reach thousands in a single session and give out just enough info to be dangerous. Suddenly after a weekend of a webinar, 10′s of thousands of new shooters are hanging out a shingle.

If you or I take one apprentice as an assistant or second who might join the business in 2-3 years, there’s nothing much wrong with that. You are ensuring the stable progression of the industry talent. One trained shooter from your studio isn’t going to ruin your market. In fact if you do it right, you’ll strengthen your market.

Back to Creative Live, this very weekend, they are teaching MWAC’s how to make money in photography. If that doesn’t prove my point that they are watering things down, nothing will.

Back to the OP’s point. I agree on all points. I would also suggest that any images you put out on the web are the smallest resolution you can get away with. In addition to an obvious watermark, insert a few nearly invisible watermarks in the image if it’s important enough to protect. Make sure the image’s EXIF is intact on your site with a copyright disclaimer. Date your blog posts so if yours was posted in 2009, and a thief starts a site tomorrow, the dates will prove provenance.

Use the tools that are available (see the link above in the OP’s article-Peter Zack) to check writing and images online for copies. When possible, use protected galleries for client work. A few samples to show off your work is fine to interest a client. Don’t post a whole wedding on your blog.

Lisa J - May 12, 2012 - 10:11 pm

Name changes are easy, and you certainly don’t ask a prospective photographer how many other names they have done business under (though if this becomes commonplace, savvy customers probably should).

Go back to her maiden name. Do business by her middle name with all checks written to first initial middle name (pfeh – my hubby pretty much only does stuff as his middle name and always has).

Now, if she did this several times in a row she’d finally use up all of her chances, but if she is willing to use this kind of “short cut” as a “get rich quick scheme,” if I’m going to be the cynic I am often accused of being I would say she would have no compunction regarding just changing things a bit name-wise and starting over, preferably with less well-known but still very talented photographer’s portfolios and winging it with the blog posts now that she’s gotten a feel for it (her apology didn’t strike me as terribly illiterate, so she should be fine there).

Yes, I’m saying if she’s someone who prefers to get to the top of the game by lying and pretending she is perfectly capable of just getting a little more creative and trying again. Worse, she’s given other people who don’t see a reason to put all the effort into it a template for how to try it themselves.

I’ve always wanted to break in and have cringed at the some suggestions regarding licensing, etc. I have 30 years photography experience but have always found a “day job” because the pro who taught me developing taught me after he left the wedding biz because he said that it was too hard to reliably support a family with it. He always made me unwilling to risk that much because I usually have been the primary bread-winner. Now I’m disabled and keep considering maybe trying portraiture part-time, and don’t want to deal with the licensing idea – in the end this is a creative endeavor – having rules as to what can and can’t be acceptable for sale within it seems somehow wrong.

However… when things like this happen, I have to wonder if maybe it’s time.

mo - June 11, 2012 - 10:14 pm

I dunno man. I get what you’re saying, and even what Gary is saying, but I think the reason people are hesitant to hire pros is the easy availability of cheap amateurs…not trust issues.

Between camera phones, low-quality uploads, and cheesy vintage effects, photography has been cheapened in people’s minds, so it seems natural to pay $50 for a DVD of amateur senior pictures.

I can honestly say that I have never, ever heard someone say “you know, I’d love to hire a pro, but who can trust them these days?”

On the other hand, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard “why would you pay that much when you can get it for 1/3 the price. What would I even do with prints?”

Anyway … it’s crazy. What Meagan did was wrong, but I can’t accept that making her life a living hell accomplishes anything.

Thanks for this post though. I appreciate your mellow take.

Amy - June 20, 2012 - 4:02 pm

She posted a mea culpa today. Jeremy Cowart posted it if you want to read his thread and then go to People of the Second Chance.

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