Ripping off other Photographers = Bad Form

by Heather on August 11, 2009

A Rep friend of mine sent me this note the other day and I thought it was worth sharing.

Copyright infringement is a touchy topic. We talk about usage and I feel part of the problem with usage fees has to do with copyright or more specifically respect of what copyright in commercial photography means. That a client provides the layout/ idea and then the supplier makes it, the shared copyright in Canadian law blurs the authorship. But when you consider the value of what the photographer/ artist brings to the job the usage is interconnected. They manifest the idea and this is why they have authorship. This is why we charge usage.

And with all that said, it comes to respect, integrity and all around “nice” behavior. Don’t intentionally rip-off other photographers. Tell the client you can’t because it’s not how you work. Modify and make it your own and if you can’t tell the difference your rep, the AB or AD should take it upon themselves to not encourage the same lighting, same angle, same pose. To be inspired is flattering to an artist but to copy them is to steal from them.

And when it comes to copying an existing shot, other then it being bad form, know that there are people watching and some of them will sue you. Sorry for the heavy note but it’s an issue that comes up occasionally and I think the only way to change it is for people to think about it.

Although the agency shouldn’t be asking photographers to do this in the first place (and I’m guessing that all of the AB’s reading this have been through this very same scenario), I like that Ms. Rep asks the photographer to push back because “it’s not how you work”.

But how often does this issue really come up? And what can you do to protect yourself?

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Ian Aleksander Adams August 12, 2009 at 12:56 am

My god, it comes up a LOT. I hear about it often – especially from young photographers sending out promos. They send out some image, or their book to an agency. The agency doesn’t hire them (often actually saying they are too young) then some months later comes out with a shoot by some more well known/established photographers that looks exactly the same… except often a little less creative or lacking that edge that made the original work interesting.

I won’t name names for the same reason no fuss was ever made over these images – the young artists are too scared to be given a rep as uncooperative or trouble makers to actually defend their work. They need the accounts at these firms so badly that they let them abuse their work. They feel that if they complain, they’ll never actually get a job there (even though they are currently not getting jobs there while their work is being used as “inspiration”)

On the flip side, several times have I been assisting, or listening to an older photographer talk about how the director put a finished picture on the table and said “we want this.” They don’t even seem interesting in changing it to fit their product, they just want it without having to pay the original creator.

It’s crap and they should stop. Unfortunately, most photographers are too scared of losing their work to say no. I don’t usually blame the photographer when an advertising image is like this, it’s a shame that they were willing to go along with it, but I understand it from their standpoint. I don’t understand it from the marketing guys standpoint – why would they want to copy something else? Are they really that lazy?

I guess it works, but in our google and image recognition software era, it’s got to be getting harder and harder to get away with this crap.

Ian Aleksander Adams August 12, 2009 at 1:01 am

PS. You know this site, right?

There’s entire communities devoted to pointing out art plagiarism.

Aaron K August 12, 2009 at 2:14 am

Here in New Zealand being asked to rip-off other peoples photos (especially RM stock shots) happens far too frequently. I think because we’re a small country on the other side of the planet many local AD’s think nobody will find out. Pretty stupid really (we do have the internet afterall).

Also, like Canada NZ still has the outdated (and highly discriminatory) commissioning rule in place – which means there is a general lack of respect for the intellectual property rights of photographers. Many agency and design firm creatives simply fail to grasp the fairly basic concept the copyright exists in the execution of the idea and not the idea itself.

RT August 12, 2009 at 12:22 pm

As a young photographer I thought it was flattering to have GQ magazine or a major NYC ad agency call in my portfolio. I later learned that they actually had no intention of hiring me and were scanning pages from it to use for “reference” or in comps without my permission. This seems like standard practice in both the ad and editorial world. As an assistant I recall working on a Coke campaign and the agency showed up with images torn from a magazine that they wanted the photographer to copy. There is way too much of this going on and agencies need to show more respect for a photographers work.

Michael Winokur August 12, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Since stock photography is heavily used in the comping process photographers are constantly asked to duplicate or at least approximate these images. The best way to break this pattern is to get the stock photos out of the comps.

Paul Conrad August 12, 2009 at 2:32 pm

The best way to overcome this is to first try to convince the client that it is a good photo, but now let’s customize it to best fit your product.

Second, let them know about intellectual copyright and how directly copying the photo is poor business and not recommended. Shoot what they want then go out on a limb and get something better/different.

It they continue to pressure for the same shot, do it, then let everyone know how they copied another photographer’s work so the ohter photographer finds out and other photographers know of their poor business practice.

anoon August 12, 2009 at 3:24 pm

An art buyer friend told me about a job he did where they copied a RM stock photo for a bid ad campaign. The good news is they paid the original shooter a heavy licensing fee. The bad news is the client gave no room for creativity after they saw the comp.

Heather August 12, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Using stock shots as reference in layout is a sticky wicket indeed.

Years ago, I managed to convince the agency to stop doing this because all of the problems it caused (the client falls in love with the shot and then you are left buying stock). For a little while we stuck to this mandate and only showed renderings in layout. The client balked at first because they were used to seeing something concrete before approving the concept but eventually learned to use their imagination.

Christine McAvoy August 13, 2009 at 4:41 am

I dislike when this happens …especially/specifically with websites.
It’s so hard to stand out website-wise as it is, and when you’ve spent hours designing (or redesigning) your website, just to see it somewhere else is afterward its beyond frustrating. This has happened not only to photographers but other businesses.

My dad spent a LOT of money having his insurance company’s website redesigned and a month after its launch the designer sent him an email saying that the analytics showed a large majority of hits from one unique visitor.
Sure enough he checked out a competitor’s website and found that they had ripped almost the entire website off… down to the font.
Needless to say it was down THAT day…
(in this case, he was told that it was the designer and that the other company didn’t even know he had ripped it off).

Some people…

Myles August 13, 2009 at 10:11 am

Copying = bad form all around. It happens in more than just photos. I have seen two photographers websites that eerily match that of an older, more established, and frankly better shooter here in Toronto. When I asked the established shooter about it he said he was aware of it and had looked into the coding on at least one of the sites and it was bang on – This was a website he had built an identity around. Mailers, portfolios, business cards etc. He had spent a lot of money on owning and creating this identity and some guy comes along rips the coding (it was html) and inserts his own images. All this in the same freaking city. What makes this worse is one of the shooters used to assist him. lame o.

Remember this, esp. in smaller markets like Canada. Those of us who hire see all of this. You send me to your site. your book. or your promo and it looks like that of someone else your cred goes way, way down.

We could open this up to the whole ‘imitation is flattery’ thing or ‘there is no such thing as an original image’ or heck even ‘assistants often have very similar looks to that of who the assist’ argument but we won’t because in the case of directly ripping off someone else, all bets are off.

Do you confront someone whose images are yours? (see Chad Holders images above – wtf? Chad, would like to know more about how you handled this…my 2 cents is they totally got you) In the case of the photographer I mentioned above, he did in fact confront one of the shooters whose website looked exactly the same. It was confirmed, with some excuses of course, but the website in question has since changed.

Jaime Hogge August 13, 2009 at 3:25 pm

Interesting Myles, though I can’t imagine wanting to copy everything right down to the website of the photographer you assisted and whom you’re already most likely linked to in the minds of clients everywhere..

One question though: what about those who purchase layouts/template services that all essentially have the same build? I know I’m in this boat and there are tons of people, even within the city that have the same site build as me simply because it’s more affordable (especially to those closer to the beginning of their careers) and easier to manage than a totally custom built site. Same goes for Livebooks based websites and I’m sure countless others.

Myles August 13, 2009 at 4:39 pm

Good question Jamie, I think those sites are exempt as they are based on a template everyone is familiar with – you by into it knowing that you have signed over a bit of your creative identity. You are buying into a system that has limited design range (albeit nice and effective design range) so there is bound to be tons of over lap. These websites do their job and they do it well. My examples were of folks who essentially copied someone’s creative identity.

For the record I think aphotofolio and livebooks both have good designs and are solid sites to host your work on. I know I certainly would be taking a hard look at them if I were building today.

dShapton August 13, 2009 at 6:41 pm

Hard to believe, but true: I have on 2 occasions been presented with layouts to quote on that had my own photos in them, comped from stock, without the art director realizing that they were mine! A word of advice — if you’re going to use stock shots in your layout, at least check the photo credits.

Ian Aleksander Adams August 13, 2009 at 7:16 pm

I don’t think anyone can make a fuss about someone using a similar livebooks layout, but I certainly wouldn’t get excited about any of those default layout providers either. Very rarely am I impressed or even happy with most of the flash sites. Taking a week to learn some html usually results in a more interesting artist site – even if it’s a little rough around the edges.

chris August 14, 2009 at 11:47 am

dShapton, I had the same thing happen to me a few times.

I have a couple of favourite stories that relate to this topic.

1) An agency asked me if I could modify a stock shot of mine that they used to pitch their client. I said sure, if it ended up being different enough from the original as to not conflict with contractual obligation to my stock agency. After 3-4 versions, it became clear that what they wanted was the exact same shot. They basically sold their client on it. What they were looking for was a break on cost. The usage quoted by my stock agency was way more than they wanted to pay and for some reason they thought I’d do it for less? I suggested that they reconsider the usage. Often there is a substantial savings in fees, when you consider need vs.want.

2) Someone licensed one of my stock shots, modify the tones slightly and submitted it to the same stock agency as their own original. What completely floored me was that the agency took it and printed it in one of their catalogs. I then spent a few months trying to convince my agency of the infringement. We settled to my satisfaction.

Over the course of my career, there have been dozens of occasions were I have been asked to copy something or have had something copied or misused.

This kind of stuff has being happening for years and will continue to happen. All we can do is say no to request that don’t feel right and confront violations when warranted. If we don’t, then those who feel compelled to copy and misuse, will continue to do so. Some probably will anyway.

a reehal August 14, 2009 at 8:18 pm

…it’s even worse when a client hires you based on your work; then, on set, directs the shoot into another direction, wanting it to look like the other guy’s work! at the very least, into a direction that says nothing about your own creative. happened to me. ah well, move on, lesson learned.

John fulton August 16, 2009 at 10:09 pm

I’m sorry I didn’t have time to read everyone’s comments and if this has already been said in so many words. The sad truth is that ADs and photogs rip each other off all the time with no repercussion whatsoever. And it’s rewarded by happy clients and money all the time also.

I shot a job where a client declared ch 11 after I delivered 17K of registered copyrighted work and is using the work over two years after the fact. I couldn’t even get a single lawyer to take the case without putting thousands of dollars down from the start.

It’s sad but it’s incredibly easy to get away with copying someones actual image much less something as abstract as an idea. I ran across a high profile campaign shot by one of the few multiillionaire American photographers in a international competition recently. The thing is is that the backgrounds had been stolen verbatim and a new person had been put in the foreground and it was entered under another photographers name. It even got third place and sat online for three years before someone noticed.

Copyright laws and lawyers have not caught up to the digital millenium yet. It sucks but if you can’t consistantly turn out original work at a competetive price, you won’t get noticed or paid.

Marie-Claude Hamel August 30, 2009 at 4:01 pm

People in the advertising business don’t just rip off photographers, they rip off one another.
Check out this site entirely dedicated to plagiarism in advertising:
Sad, but true.

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