To the entire Internet: Here’s how to steal my work – but be warned, I’ll steal yours in the same ways

The other day several of my friends e-mailed me congratulations that one of my photos had been published. It caught me flat-footed; I hadn’t submitted any photos anywhere! It turns out two of my photos were published that day in different online publications – without my knowledge.

The first ended up being a permitted use. Indiana Landmarks, our state’s historic preservation group, used to e-mail me a couple times a year asking to use my photos in their publications. I’m a Landmarks member and love their cause, so I always enthusiastically said yes. Finally I just gave them blanket permission to use my photos as they see fit as long as they credit me. I just didn’t stop to think that “as they see fit” might include passing them on to an outside group!

The photo in question is this one of The Diner, the front part of which is a 1953 Mountain View aluminum diner. I took it on my 2009 trip along Indiana’s National Road (US 40). A well-known landmark in the Indianapolis suburb of Plainfield, it has been closed and vacant for years now. It is also the last aluminum diner on the entire National Road, which led Indiana Landmarks to advocate for its preservation. They’ve worked out a deal where the diner itself will be moved farther into town, still on the National Road, but this valuable land will be sold for development.

Roadside businesses on US 40

But that’s not why a cropped version of the photo showed up in this story in The Indianapolis Star. It appeared there because Indiana Landmarks sent poets all over Indiana to write verse about various landmarks, including The Diner; they then held a reading of all the poems. The Star wrote a story about it, and Indiana Landmarks provided my photo for the story. Indiana Landmarks honored my terms by asking that the Star credit me, and the Star was good to honor that request.

The other photo was published without my permission. It is this photo of the Monon Fitness Center, which I took a couple months ago with my vintage Agfa Clack. (And in the three years since my photo of The Diner, I learned how to fill the frame with my subject!)

Monon Fitness Center

I uploaded this photo to Flickr, where I assign all of my photos a Creative Commons license that lets people use them freely for non-profit purposes as long as they credit me and use them unmodified. The Indianapolis Business Journal is certainly for profit – and when this building sold recently to be converted into a brew pub, the IBJ featured my photo when they blogged about the sale. They credited me and linked to my blog.

I was at once delighted and irritated. I love it when someone finds my pictures useful. My words, too, for that matter. But couldn’t the IBJ have sent me a quick message asking my permission? Harrumph!

But it’s time for full disclosure: I sometimes use others’ work here on Down the Road:

  • Just last week I used a frame from a Harry Potter movie in a post, and I have reproduced a few photos from a book about US 40 here. I think (hope!) this falls under fair use.
  • For my recent post about television news themes, not only did I use a photo of a television I found somewhere on the Internet, I superimposed onto the screen a frame from a YouTube video of a copyrighted TV news broadcast. Heck, for that matter, I made the accompanying video of copyrighted news opens from videos I liberated from around YouTube.
  • Finally, for several years I knew I was violating Google’s terms when I used screen shots from Google Maps in my road-trip posts. Used to be, Google insisted that maps be embedded. But they sometimes update the aerial imagery, meaning that my blog would no longer show things as they were at the time I took my trip. So I deliberately violated their terms until a couple years ago when Google relaxed the terms to allow screen shots as long they’re properly attributed. That’s why you now see long copyright statements under my Google Maps screen shots.

A couple years ago I quietly added a Copyright page to this blog. It outlines the practices I try to follow in using the work of others, and states my terms if you want to use my work (my photographs and my words). I happen to think that the best way to protect your work is to not publish it on the Internet. I won’t go as far as to say that publishing on the Internet erodes your copyright, but I think it’s realistic to expect some of it will eventually be stolen. You have to determine whether righting the wrong is worth the costs, in time, effort, and maybe even lawyer fees. I have come down on the side of nope in all cases so far. Here’s my twofold litmus test:

  • Have you harmed me somehow, such as by claiming my work as your own, associating me with something I don’t support, modifying my work in a way I don’t like, or making significant money from my work?
  • Are you being a butthead, repeatedly using my work without honoring my terms?

I don’t feel harmed by the IBJ‘s use of my Monon Fitness Center photo – they credited me, I like the IBJ, they didn’t even crop the photo, and I can’t imagine how my photo materially boosted their revenue. (I might not be so forgiving if I made my living with my camera or my writing. I make software to feed my family.) And as far as I know, they haven’t been liberally raiding my Flickr stream. So they get a pass for using my photo.

Similarly, I think my use of others’ work here on Down the Road meets the same criteria. Well, my repeated use of Google Maps imagery miiiiiiight have dipped its toes into the butthead pool a little. I was relieved when Google changed its terms, and I immediately started honoring them.

What do you think? Are you more or less rigid than me when it comes to your work that you’ve published online? Why?

Get more of my photography in your inbox or reader! Click here to subscribe.


20 responses to “To the entire Internet: Here’s how to steal my work – but be warned, I’ll steal yours in the same ways”

  1. Tori Nelson Avatar

    This is a tricky one because I don’t take photos or post artwork. The only original thing I publish on my blog is writing, and if someone uses that then it’s, well, plagiarism. I’ve been quoted or had bits of a post used by other people across the internet. I normally don’t mind so long as they make it clear that those aren’t their words.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I didn’t write much in my post about somebody stealing my writing, but I think that if that were to happen actually be more upset about it than if somebody stole one of my photos. I’m not sure why; stealing is stealing. The point of my post today was more about how I respond to people stealing my work rather than how I feel about it though. I think that as soon as you post anything you’ve created on the Internet, you run the risk of it being used someplace else without your permission. I think it’s smart to know in advance how you’re going to respond to that when it happens.

  2. Jennifer S Avatar

    I think it’s fabulous you let the historic preservation organization use your work… they must be thrilled. And if I were an artist, I’d probably welcome any exposure… though I’d also like a little cash. In my past use of copyrighted images from archival collections, the payout’s been pretty slim. I think they collected something like a buck and a quarter per from me.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thanks Jennifer! In my travels around the state I’ve photographed a bunch of old buildings and bridges and I’m just delighted that Landmarks can make good use of those photos. It’s very cool to see my work appear sometimes in their member magazine. I used to work in publishing and remember how slim the payouts could be for others’ work we wanted to use; more often than not, if we couldn’t get the rights gratis we just passed. Margins in publishing are paper-thin! (Pun intended.)

  3. Denny Gibson Avatar

    Mutually assured abduction?

    1. Jim Avatar

      That’s perfect! And it would have been a much shorter title for this post.

  4. Mike Avatar

    I’m always amused by people who deface their own work with big signatures or watermarks designed to foil theft. On the hand, while I’m not really looking for profit from my work, I do get irritated when someone lifts my pictures of old cameras and whole swaths of text from my web site to sell things on ebay. That happened recently when a friend advised me of a guy trying to sell a No.1 Special Kodak by lifting a half dozen of my photos for his listing. I wrote to him advising he was in violation of copyright, and told him I had no objections provided that the work was credited. Not a peep of a reply to my concern, but ebay does have a process for complaint which I made use of. It cost me some time and a few bucks for the requisite fax, but I did get some satisfaction from seeing his listing evaporate shortly before the end of the sale.

    1. Jim Avatar

      So far I’m not aware that any of my photos or text have been stolen for use in an online auction, although I do get hits here when people include one of my camera posts as a link when they’re selling one of those cameras. I’d probably use the complaint process if someone posted my images or words on eBay — time/cost is low enough, and the person is making a profit using my work.

  5. Mike P. Avatar
    Mike P.

    Hey Jim. I just started watching your blog and find it humorous and educational. Copyright has been a “back of my mind” passion for many years. There is even a full degree at IU on the subject. With the introduction of the internet and the ability to instantly “get” info and pictures, much discussion and money have been spent on how to manage this subject. Any good writer and editor know you always cover your sources with at least a nod and reference. That’s all us little people can usually get. I guarantee if you attempt to repost, copy, print, or otherwise use an article from the news industry they will be contacting you with a bill. Forget fairness, where has the common courtesy gone? Keep the Faith and good work. (Love the camera info)

    1. Jim Avatar

      I find copyright to be very pesky! Yet I do want proper credit for the work I’ve done. So I’m clearly of two minds!

  6. traveller858 Avatar

    Jim. I believe that at the moment you have your, justifiable, frustrations under control. I also realise that you are feel somewhat helpless against the protagonists. You must push this as far as you feel able. There is one thing that I hope you will do is continue to post as you have been. Always interesting and very informative.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thanks! You have to know what hills you’re willing to die on.

  7. hmunro Avatar

    Great post, Jim! I’ve thought a lot about this topic since a travel blogger “borrowed” elements from one of my posts without so much as a nod (let alone a link).

    The law is quite clear in most cases as to what constitutes fair use, but the boundaries seem a bit fuzzier on the Internet. For me, it comes down to a simple guiding principle: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In other words, give credit where it’s due. Don’t profit from others’ intellectual property (unless you’ve agreed to give them a part of your profits). And don’t take advantage of people’s good graces — as the IBJ did with your Creative Commons license.

    I applaud you for keeping the IBJ’s affront in perspective (“I don’t feel harmed … they credited me … and I can’t imagine how my photo materially boosted their revenue”). You’ve shown tremendous generosity by taking the high road. But I do think the IBJ deserves a polite reminder of the terms of your CC license. After all, you don’t want them to keep coming back to the Jim Grey well of photographic goodness, right? :)

    In any case, at least there are now some tools for sussing out those sneaky photo-snatchers. My favorite is

    And congrats on your new-found fame! I suppose now you can at least say that your work has been published in the IBJ. *Grin.*

    1. Jim Avatar

      I considered whether to send the IBJ a polite letter but ultimately decided to put that energy into this blog post instead. Should they make a habit of it, the butthead clause will be triggered and they will hear from me!

      It is nice, though, to be able to say I’ve been published in the Star and the IBJ!

  8. ryoko861 Avatar

    I guess it’s an honor when people use your photos, but I can see where a simple “can we?” would be in order. I have nothing worth copying and if so, I can’t imagine what they’re doing to want to use my images. Can’t be high quality, that’s for sure. But anything on flikr and photobucket is up for grabs I thought. Maybe you should start putting water marks on your photos. You have a natural talent Jim, it should be protected.

    1. Jim Avatar

      You actually legally retain your copyright on anything you place on the Internet, unless you specifically revoke them or the terms of agreement with the site you posted to specifically revokes them. That’s how I understand it, anyway. Thanks for saying such nice things about my photography.

  9. Ted Kappes Avatar

    I have gotten to where I will usually let a non-profit use an image, however it is for some commercial purpose I expect that they should pay something. I don’t plan on making any money with my photos, however I don’t allow commercial places to use for free in support of people who are trying to make a living. It seems like a lot of places that used to pay for photos have found that they can get what they need for free. They usually say that they can’t pay anything, however they will cite the source and that will be good recognition. That approach seems to work with a lot of newbie photographers and it has hurt those trying to make a living quite a lot. Another thing they do is have contests where the prize again is recognition. To submit to these contests you have to grant a lot of rights to your photos to the contest runner. Its a good way to put together a pool of photos that they don’t have to pay anything for.

    1. Jim Avatar

      You make a good point, Ted, about charging for-profits to use my work so I don’t harm pro photographers. I’ll have to chew on that.

  10. innotechmanila Avatar

    Hi Jim. Recently, one of our Philippine Senators plagiarized works of a couple of bloggers. Most recent was his translation of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1966 Day of Affirmation Speech which he then delivered in our Senate during one of his privilege speeches.


    Our notorious Senator denied he plagiarized.

    Men of leadership who plagiarize are no different from the common thief.

    1. Jim Avatar

      It’s a shame that this senator couldn’t have admitted that he made a mistake. I think in this case the denial of wrongdoing may have been worse than the wrongdoing itself!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.