Facebook and Copyright

The other day, I discovered that someone who was following me on my business Facebook page (she appears to be a student, studying photography at a local college) had downloaded or screen-captured one of my images and used it as her profile / cover image. No credit was given, nor did she acknowledge that the image didn’t belong to her. She also never bothered to ask for my permission. I decided to send her a friendly message asking her to remove my image from her page, as such usage violates copyright laws.

After several days, I received this:

As a photography student, her ignorance to copyright laws — as well as basic internet etiquette — is shocking. After taking a deep breath, I decided that the right thing to do would be to write a polite yet informative letter, explaining a professional’s point of view. Although I was annoyed by her response, I can accept that she’s still learning. Unfortunately, Facebook has deleted her profile, which it only does if you’ve violated copyright laws multiple times. Although she may never get my reply, I’ve decided to share my thoughts here, as I feel this is an important issue.

It’s hard to know where to begin, but for starters, I was amazed at this young woman’s lack of respect. Instead of stealing the image, she simply could have asked for my permission. If she had, I might have said yes, provided she included image credit and a link to my website. Instead, she took the image and passed it off as her own without ever contacting me.

Next, this line just floors me: “You shouldn’t put stuff on the internet if you don’t want people to use it.” Does she really believe it’s OK to take whatever she wants and use it for her own purposes, as long as she found it on the internet? I have a feeling that the musicians whose work has been pirated through share sites would disagree with her, as would writers whose professional work is reposted, unattributed, on aggregate sites or blogs. It happens all the time, and when the content creators get upset, they’re not being unfair… they make a living from their work, and every time it’s stolen, that’s money lost.

Photographs, like original pieces of music, writing or artwork, are the intellectual property of their creators. Yes, even on Facebook. If you see an image on Facebook, by all means like it, comment on it and share it — many photographers promote their work through social media, and they appreciate interaction on their pages. The moment you take an image and pass it off as your own, however, you move into very different territory. That is theft.

I am sure that, as a student, this young woman would feel flattered if someone steals one of her images. After nearly two decades working as a professional photographer, I can guarantee that she’s likely to feel differently when she has to make a living through her work.

I sincerely hope she’ll learn about copyright laws. Once an aspiring photographer or photographer’s assistant has earned a reputation for stealing intellectual property and being disrespectful to her peers, it can take a very long time to undo that damage. Photographers talk to each other when they’re looking to hire assistants or second shooters. So it’s simple: If you’re looking to work in this business (or any business, really), handle yourself professionally — especially on social media. Many young people don’t realize that employers go straight to Facebook when they’re vetting a prospective hire.

Don’t hide behind email, either. That means when this young student is conversing with someone other than her friends, perhaps she should refrain from starting out a letter with “dude, chill out” and concluding with “butt hurt.” I have no idea what to do with that… but it does tell me that she’s far from professional at this stage of the game. She should have considered being respectful instead, offering an honest, straightforward apology rather than snarky comments.

I puzzled about this whole situation for quite awhile, trying to decide if I was being too tough on a young student. But I don’t think so. It’s never too early to learn that stealing intellectual property and passing it off as your own is, in fact, stealing. If you really like an image and want to use it, just ask. Chances are, if you ask for permission and offer to provide credit and perhaps a link to the photographer’s website, you just might get the green light you’re hoping for. Unless you really do want to pass off someone else’s work as your own… if that’s the case, you might want to reconsider your career choice.

Just my $0.02 (or perhaps a bit more)!



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