Textile artist at work on a vintage loom, Bhaktapur, Nepal.
"Photography is the only 'language' understood in all parts of the world and bridging all nations and cultures, it links the family of man. Independent of political influence - where people are free - it reflects truthfully life and events, allows us to share in the hopes and despair of others and illuminates social and political conditions. We become the eyewitness of the humanity and inhumanity of mankind..." - Helmut Gernsheim, Creative Photography, 1962.
What do image-sharing sites, photo scrapers, phishing sites, spammers and careless bloggers have in common? All seek to benefit from other people's creations, using images to draw attention and traffic to their own sites or to profit financially. These companies and individuals are exploiting our hard work, without compensation or recognition.
The business of photography is being undermined by the proliferation of "photo sharing" sites, which falsely imply that photos are free-for-the-taking. These sites pilfer other people's work, decreasing its value and eroding the marketplace. Such cynical sites provide a quickening sea of (mostly) misappropriated images, restlessly gobbled up with little thought or contemplation - the "fast food" of the art world.
Image-sharing sites don't want visitors to pause and consider; to contemplate the subject or savour the beauty. Why bother, when short attention spans are so easily diverted? Just grab a few nice images to reel visitors in and track their interests and habits via cookies, sold to marketers. Or if you're a spam site, bombard visitors with location-based ads.
The prevailing attitude among many Internet users seems to be that photographs are of little consequence or value. After all, there will be more disposable images - thousands of varying quality created every minute - as everybody and his brother with a mobile phone begin to view their filter-enhanced instant snaps as "art."
I beg to differ. Photography is not just a momentary snapshot of our own lives, insuring family and friends and events maintain their hold in our collective memories. Photography is an essential tool for spotlighting realities we'd sometimes rather avoid or revealing a subtle element of a story not often considered. Photography offers insight into the way people live, looking beyond obvious differences of cultures, rituals and traditions. Photography helps chronicle our history - both personal and political - with integrity and purpose. Most of all, photography helps us truly see what is right in front of us.
“While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see.” - Dorothea Lange
Child sifting grain, Bungamati, Nepal. Click photos to view detail.
Three months ago, I embarked on a mind-boggling odyssey into the smoke-and-mirrored-world of photo theft (both deliberate and unintentional). I've encountered naive bloggers bewildered by copyright law and others who claim anything they see online is free; refusing to apologise and berating me for daring to contact them (but my photos were removed). I've heard every ridiculous excuse in the book and received threatening email and vile blog comments (promptly deleted) from people using MY work.
Photo-tracking detective work can prove maddening and exhausting, not to mention time-consuming. It's necessary to search for IP addresses, site owners and site/server hosts - then retain all documentation (including screenshots) and correspondence until individual cases are resolved. Finding an actual human being to query isn't easy, as many site owners hide behind dummy companies and proxy servers - or simply ignore email messages. Some site hosts answer legal "cease and desist" requests, only after receiving an invoice for unauthorized use of copyrighted work.
Logically, there would be a standardized form for reporting non-compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and international copyright law. But nearly every company, site host or server provider has its own form and procedural requirements (or not, depending upon their level of engagement with site users). So what should be a simple, straightforward process can become mired in mindless minutiae.
In my own experience, here are 43 key sites to watch for "wandering" photos (and several are repeat offenders):
Bing images - Hotbed for spammers, who steal photos via Bing's image index and hotlink them to dodgy spam or suspicious sites. To date, I have found more than 200 photos used in this manner. Despite providing Bing's tech support with a list of more than 150 photos (original source and the link to which my photos have been redirected), Bing has been unhelpful in resolving the situation. I've installed code on my websites to prevent Bing from indexing images, but the problem persists. Many photos that appear on Bing Images have been deleted from my websites, yet remain on Bing (with broken links or links redirected to spam or attack sites). I would be happy if none of my photos appeared via Bing image searches.
Keyword pictures - Russia-based site which appropriates photos left and right to draw traffic to its website. Won't take stolen photos down; doesn't respond to email or DMCA takedown notices. The company's Amsterdam-based site and server host thus far has failed to properly address copyright violation notices (not counting the numerous online forms I've submitted to Keyword Pictures, informing them of abuse). The site/server host appears to be employing delaying tactics by repeatedly requesting information already provided and insisting on opening a new "ticket" with each email- without ever having addressed the initial claim. At least three of my copyrighted photos remain on this site, without permission and without credit. I have invoiced Keyword pictures for unauthorized use of my work. It seems I must appeal to a higher authority to have my photos removed.
Weddingbycolor.com - Canadian-based wedding site. Since May 24th, I have been trying to get even one person to address a copyright violation. Have filed numerous complaints via the site's forms; emailed the copyright infringer; reported the site to Google and filed DMCA takedown notices with site and server hosts. Yet 26 emails and numerous forms later, my copyrighted photo remains on the site, without credit or permission! I have invoiced the company for using my work. They've ignored the invoice, just as they have every other communication.
Update: Aug. 10th - Nearly three months after filing the first request for Weddingbycolor.com to remove my copyrighted photo, I received a "form" email: "We have just received your message regarding the copyright issue on page ... It is now removed from the website." No apology.
Graphics99.com - Site appropriates photos to attract traffic. The site stole my photo and altered it with graphics, offering it in various sizes to users for free.
Coolgraphic.org - Same as above, altering photo with graphics and offering "poster" to users as wallpaper; has yet to respond to DMCA requests to remove the photo. Am billing this company for violating copyright.
My photo: stolen, altered and offered for free at Graphics99.com and Coolgraphic.org.
Uber.com - California-based car hire company that grabbed my photo of a woman wearing a hat at Longchamp, Paris; added graphics to the image and used it to promote a special event in San Diego. At my request, the company removed the image, but I have invoiced them for unauthorized use of my work.
livejournal.com - Users post photos without consideration of source or copyright. Site is slow to react to copyright infringement.
Picstopin.com - With the tagline "discover pictures to pin," this site swipes photos to draw traffic. Site administrators are extremely slow in removing images. Copyright holders must fill out a separate online pop-up form for each image to be removed. This site has been identified as spam and bears no direct link with Pinterest.
Cakechooser.com - Had to track down site/server host, ater making multiple requests to remove my photos from this advertising site.
Tattoopins.com - Grabs photos to draw traffic to its site; removes said photos after a separate pop-up form is filled out for each image. The site appropriated my photos of carvings on wood in Chinon, France, among others.
VisualizeUS.com - "Social bookmarking for pictures" is this site's tagline. Shows images with a "found by" notation. Slow to respond to copyright infringement claims. In my first request, my photo was removed, but the link to the photo remained. Other claims are ongoing.
FFFFound - Japan-based "image bookmarking" site which encouragers users to lift photos and text verbatim from blogs; is extremely slow to react to requests to remove original content.
Facebook - I left Facebook over four years ago, due to privacy concerns. Many Facebook users randomly post anything and everything, without permission or credit. Have had numerous photos cropped, watermarks removed and the images falsely credited to others. Facebook has ignored requests to remove my photos.
ToPictures.com - Bills itself as displaying "top pictures from the top search engines," but is a spam/advertising site.
glogster.com - Prague-based social network "glogging" site (as opposed to blogging). Removes copyrighted photos after lengthy email exchanges and DMCA notice of copyright violation.
feedio.net - Randomly grabs images from the web. A site disclaimer declares "we are not responsible for the content posted on this website." Feedio removed my photos upon receipt of a DMCA notice.
imgfave.com - This site claims to be "a place to discover and share amazing images." Perhaps I should be flattered, as I found at least 166 of my images posted by imgfave users. The photos were removed, following a formal DMCA request to the site host.
vebidoo.de - Germany-based "people search engine." Vebidoo uses names of public figures to draw traffic to its advertising and spam site; grabs images without credit or permisson; ignores copyright violation notices. Update Aug. 1st: In an email today, Vebidoo.de claims that it "only displays content that is openly accessible on the Internet. Vebidoo.de is not responsible for the content of other websites and cannot modify it." Apparently, Vebidoo.de considers anything they can swipe online as fair game! Needless to say, I am pursuing this company's serial copyright theft via all available avenues.
Yasni.fr - France-based company claims to be a "people search engine." But Yasni hijacks a name from an online article and attaches ads in a layer over the post. Despite formal requests both in the "judicially- accepted" language French and in English, Yasni.fr ignores every email and copyright violation notice.
Spice seller, Bhaktapur, Nepal.
fanpop.com - Celebrity-lite entertainment aggregator, with a remarkably cavalier approach to photo sources.
celebest.com - Grabs photos linked to people's names in the hope of directing traffic to this spam site.
Pictify - With a layout nearly identical to Pinterest and Indulgy, this site describes itself as "your social art network." Pictify uses other people's photos to attract site traffic.
24x7photography.com - Bills itself as an "image hosting, free photo sharing" site; took nearly one month for them to bother to remove my photo, used without permission.
photosofweddingcakes.info - Appears to be a spam site; using my photo of a shop window in San Francisco; has ignored email requests and a DMCA notice to take down the photo.
asmarna.net - Arabic site, which grabs photos AND content to promote sales of posters. After I filed a DMCA takedown notice, the site host removed my photo and poem, but my name and the link to my site remained. Consequently, I had to delete the original post from my blog, to prevent asmarna.net from using my work to promote its products. Now the site's link to my work leads to nowhere!
sodahead.com - Content aggregator; social networking site. Removed image upon request.
weblo.com - Swipes photos linked to keywords to promote traffic to this "Virtual world. Real profit" spam/advertising site.
red-grey.co.uk - Appropriates photos matching specific keywords to draw traffic to its spam site. Ignores all requests to remove copyrighted photos.
viewgoods.com - Appears to be a sister site to red-grey.co.uk; swipes photos matching keywords and does not respond to email or DMCA takedown notices.
kakitches.com - Yet another site that grabs photos from the web, using keywords. The site has yet to respond to a request to remove my copyrighted photos.
cacitches.com - Undoubtedly, this photo-stealing spam site is linked to the one above. The site has posted several of my photos and ignored all requests to remove them. Update Aug. 1: This site's domain has expired.
englishclass.jp - Dual-language Japan-based site, which swipes photos to link to its spam and advertising site. The company has not replied to copyright infringement notices.
picturesonline.org - Turkish site hosting pictures pilfered from the web as traffic boosters. The site appears to be a front for advertising pages. Has ignored repeated requests to remove my photos.
Kootation.com - Grabs popular photos to draw traffic to its spam/advertising site. Offers stolen photos as "free wallpaper." When a visitor clicks a photo, a series of dodgy ads lurk behind the photo. The visitor's screen fills with an unwanted cascade of multiple ads and each ad must be closed individually. Upon request, Kootation has removed my photos. (I am not providing a direct link to this site or the one below, due to their cascades of ads upon viewing a photo).
Axsoris.com - Same modus operandi as Kootation. Uses keywords and grabs related photos to entice traffic. Visitors are forced to deal with a cascade of dubious ads. At my request, this site has removed my photos.
Bloguez.com - Microblogging site, with repeated photo hijacking; no credit provided to photographer and ads attached to page links.
Pinme.ru - Pinterest copycat, with its page layout nearly identical to Pinterest. It remains to be seen whether or not my copyrighted photos will be removed without a fight from this "visual sharing site."
girlshopes.com - Spam/phishing site which has stolen at least 12 of my photos to draw traffic to its site. It misidentifies photos to suit its spam "theme" on any particular page. Hides behind a proxy site "to protect its privacy."Tumblr - Blogging site, which quickly removes appropriated images, upon DMCA requests. One of my photos from Nepal was "reblogged" over 10,000 times on Tumblr and wrongly credited to others.
Pinterest - 218 emails and counting, in the relentless quest of having hundreds of my images removed from these glorified community bulletin boards. In September 2012 I installed code on my sites to stop my images being "pinned." Most photos I'm finding now have been "pinned" from bloggers or site owners, who grabbed my photos without permission. One incredibly rude bridal site owner in New York used my photos both on Pinterest and on her website, wrongly crediting the site from which she took the photos. She then questioned how I could prove my photos were, in fact, mine - even after seeing them on my own site. Uh, the metadata provides a strong clue (although some infringing sites strip photo metadata).
Indulgy - The "everyone deserves a perfect world" Pinterest lookalike. Indulgy administrators remove photos after the copyright holder fills out a DMCA form for each image infringed.
Weheartit.com - Displays theme-based images taken from the Internet. Addresses copyright violations, upon completion of a DMCA form.
Etsy - Am considering closing my Etsy shop, because of the company's arbitrary inclusion of a "pin it" button on every listing. Despite requests by numerous sellers to make this feature optional, Etsy has kept the button, encouraging visitors to "pin" items they like to Pinterest. Recently, the site featured a rather self-serving article advising sellers how to "promote" their shops on Pinterest. The article failed to address copyright law, but the commenters did. (Read a sampling, to understand the kind of "I-can-do-whatever-I-like" entitlement attitudes we're up against). Here's an excellent Etsy thread addressing Pinterest and copyright (it is long, but well worth the read. If you're in a hurry, jump in around page 47).
Update July 19th: I just found dozens of my photographs on this outrageous spam/scraper site. Vanuax.com uses my photos as a front, hiding a cascade of deeply offensive ads, which have to be closed one by one, to get them off the screen. Infuriating! Needless to say, I've filed a DMCA takedown notice with the site/server host. Update 9:30 p.m. Amsterdam time - My photos were removed from this site, in response to my strongly-worded email and DMCA takedown notice.
And then there's this - an almost identical scraper site, which has swiped dozens of my photos to sneakily disguise its stealth advertising techniques. Surprise, surprise - Vunzooke.com appears to be operated by the same company and site/server host as Vanuax.com. Further, it's linked to the spam/phishing site Axorsis.com (details above).
Teenage schoolgirls, Bhaktapur, Nepal.
My inbox currently contains over 800 messages dealing with copyright infringement. As a result of finding hundreds of stolen photos - and the enormous amount of time, energy and grief trying to have them removed from offending sites - I have made changes to my websites and the way I present my work.
After blogging for 7 1/2 years and writing 2,430 posts, I have deleted 1,000 2,100 posts and thousands of photos - and may delete more - to avoid having to track those images all over the Internet. I've deleted category links to posts within my blog, after at least 3 phishing sites copied every post in several categories (a website was suspended, after posting 91 of my articles). I've changed the original url to many blog posts, after finding the same photos stolen over and over again (with 19 different bridal sites as the culprits!). And I've started adding prominent watermarks to every image I post.
In an ideal world, I'd have no involvement with companies or websites mentioned in this post. But thoughtless actions and/or brazen theft have forced me to interact with these sites to protect the integrity of my work. The next time you think about "pinning" or posting someone else's work without permission, consider the consequences for that person's business (and possible legal ramifications for the copyright infringer).Try to put yourself in the position of the creative artist who wrote that article or photographed that nomad or painted that scene or designed that hat.
Imagine if you walked into a boutique in another country and found a dress you designed for sale - with no credit to you. What if a painting you'd worked on for months was reproduced on greeting cards, posters and t-shirts, with proceeds to the art thief? Consider how you'd feel if a book photo - for which you'd traveled to a remote outpost, then coaxed the subject for 20 minutes to allow a single shot - turned up in a cartoon-like HDR version on a travel company's website? What if an innocent photograph of roses - snapped on one spring afternoon in Paris - was posted on porn and wedding sites alike? What if a photo of a vintage child's school desk in Paris was hotlinked to an attack/abuse site? Is this "fair use" of the original work? Absolutely not, by any stretch of the imagination.
Despite image-sharing sites' often-misleading language - intended to sow confusion among their users and encourage photo-snatching - the law is clear: Copyright applies, in each and every venue where the work is presented. Content theft, plagarism and copyright infringement are illegal, no matter how image-sharing sites try to spin the facts.
Postscript: A couple of readers have inquired about how to trace their photos online. Go to Google images and type in your name or your blog or website name. If you click on each photo that appears (or hover your mouse over the image), you'll see a link to the site that has used your work. If you're looking for a specific image that you suspect has been misappropriated, do a reverse image search by dragging your photo into the Google Image search box and hit enter. The sites using your photos will appear. Don't be surprised if these sites don't credit you as the source; often one site has swiped the photo from another - or worse, is claiming credit for your work.
Check your photos on Bing Images by typing in your name or your website name (best to do separate searches for both). But be forewarned - this is where you're likely to find your images hotlinked to dodgy spam or advertising sites. Every time I do an image search on Bing, I become distressed by the sheer volume of photos hijacked and linked to sites of dubious distinction.