What to do when someone uses your photographs on the Internet

They published my photos on their site a whopping 154 times without my permission. So I sent them a takedown notice. And I learned an unfortunate lesson.

I’ve always encouraged people to use my photographs in their personal or non-profit projects. I wanted to make it easy to do that. But I’ve never wanted for-profit companies to use my photos without my permission. So for years I’ve had Flickr assign the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (BY-NC-ND) license to my photos as I upload them. It set just the terms I wanted.

Not long ago a reader contacted me to say that he found several of my photos used in an article on Only In Your State. This site publishes articles about places and events in each US state. They claim to be a travel site, but it looks to me like they’re trying to take advantage of search’s “long tail” and of social-media sharing, to drive eyeballs to their site and the ads on it. The articles appear to be churned out quickly, and it looks like they mine Flickr and Facebook for photographs to use as illustrations.

I went to the page that reader shared and there my photographs were. At least they credited me by putting my name under each one.

Curious, I Googled “Jim Grey site:onlyinyourstate.com” — and got a long list of results. My Flickr stream had been a gold mine for them! They used these photos in particular many times in their articles.

Ohio River, from IN SR 62, Leavenworth, IN
Ohio River, from IN SR 62, Leavenworth, IN
Turkey Run trip
Turkey Run State Park
Midway entrance
Indiana State Fair midway entrance
Misty morning Bean Blossom 4-9 1
Misty morning, State Road 135 near Bean Blossom

A number of years ago I wrote this post about image theft. I gave it a tongue-in-cheek title, but I was serious in saying that when you publish your photos on the Internet, you should expect that people will sometimes use them when you’d rather they didn’t. When it happens, you have to decide whether righting the wrong is worth the effort. It takes time and effort to write a DMCA takedown letter. If it fails, you need to lawyer up to get your work taken down. Here’s the two-point test I posted then that still guides whether I go after someone who’s used my photos without my permission.

  • 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?

Only In Your State hasn’t materially harmed me (although I have no idea what their ad revenues are). But using my photos 154 times crosses firmly into butthead territory. So I sent them a DMCA takedown notice.

That took most of an afternoon. You have to list every single instance of your work that you want taken down. You also have to link to where they store it on their site, and where you store your original on the Internet. They used my photos 154 times — the letter was 17 pages long!

I heard back from Only In Your State within 24 hours. Their response was not unfriendly. They pointed out that there’s a well-known gray area in Creative Commons noncommercial licenses like the one I used: what constitutes commercial use? One camp says it is directly making money off the licensed work, such as by printing it on T-shirts and selling the shirts. The other says that it’s any use by a for-profit company. I looked it up; it turns out this gray area is real.

I fall into the second camp. Only In Your State falls into the first, and has no intention of removing my photographs. They did, however, offer to write articles about something I’m passionate about in my own state.

First thing, I removed the Creative Commons license from all of my Flickr photos. I now reserve all rights. But if you want to use my photos in your personal or non-profit work, email me (use my contact form here) — I’ll say yes.

Second, I told the people at Only In Your State about Indiana’s byways, especially the Michigan Road, the National Road, the Lincoln Highway, the Ohio River Scenic Byway, and Indiana’s Historic Pathways.

Maybe they’ll write articles, maybe they won’t. But from here on out, my photograph copyrights should keep them from using my images in any new articles. I hope.

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26 responses to “What to do when someone uses your photographs on the Internet”

  1. N.S. Palmer Avatar

    At least their site has good taste!

    Let’s hope you don’t run into another problem that seems to have afflicted some photographers who post their work online: Getty Images or some other site takes your photos, puts its watermark on them, claims ownership, and demands that you pay for using your own images.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Oh goodness, if Getty or one of its competitors did that I’d definitely hire a lawyer.

      1. N.S. Palmer Avatar

        I think the reasoning is that it costs more to hire a lawyer than just to pay them, so most (or enough) people just pay up.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          That would be straight up theft, and I would lawyer up.

    2. Khürt Williams Avatar

      I think I’m willing to descend into hell and go broke living inside a cardboard box to defend myself if that happens.

  2. M.B. Henry Avatar

    Well I can see why they want to use your photos – but I totally agree it was a little bit buttheadish.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Turns out I photograph exactly the kind of things they write about. :-/

      1. M.B. Henry Avatar

        Well that – and your photographs are fabulous. :)

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Aw, shucks! 😊

  3. Mike Connealy Avatar

    I discovered some while ago that another blogger site had copied whole postings including words and pictures from my blog site. I don’t recall now the exact details of the outcome, but I do recall being very irritated with all the hoops I had to jump through to get Blogger to do something about the issue.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Well that’s frustrating. It should be easy to do a takedown within the service you use for publishing!

  4. Marc Beebe Avatar

    The trick is to not make such good photos that others want to use them! It’s easy. I’ll send you my Lumix and if you use that then none of your images will be worth looking at! :D

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I have a couple old film cameras like that! :-)

  5. Peggy Avatar

    So if you have now changed the copyright on your photos, does that alter their rights to use them?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      CC licenses are not revocable for existing uses. So this site gets to use those images on those pages under the CC license forever. But now that I’ve reset my images to all be All Rights Reserved, they can’t use my images on new articles on their site.

  6. Khürt Williams Avatar

    I’d personally write articles like this and post every where and often about their scummy behaviour. I’d work to turn public opinion against them.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      On the one hand I feel the same way, on the other I hate to put the energy into it.

  7. brandib1977 Avatar

    I have long hated that site because it is click baitey and amateur. I used to be the tourism director for my community and have worked with actual travel professionals – in comparison, they seem pretty bad and now I like them even less.

    That said, they do have good taste in photographs if they chose yours. Wonder how many other people they’re ripping off?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Their articles do have that “content mill” scent. I’m sure they just mine Facebook for CC-licensed photos for their articles, with reckless abandon.

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        Sigh. What is wrong with people?

  8. Michael Avatar

    I’ll have to look up the FB rules. I don’t post enough that it matters much and don’t have the time to deal with watermarking them, but I am curious now. I do note that they apparently resize them 50% since I just downloaded one of the ones I just posted.

    I always get a kick out of people posting stuff like this: “I inform Facebook that it is strictly prohibited to disclose, copy, distribute or take any other action against me based on this account and / or its contents. This account content is private and confidential information….” LOL

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, as if you telling Facebook your terms is enough to overcome the terms you agreed to when you signed up for the service.

  9. Joe shoots resurrected cameras Avatar

    Ugh. Can’t stand it when assholes make money off artists’ work and get away with not compensating them! All my stuff is purposely uploaded at a fixed res of 1500×1000, watermarked, and only available on WordPress (some limited FB).

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I sometimes regret using Flickr as my photo dumping ground so I can use the images easily across the Internet. But I’m too far in now. The Internet is certainly not the magical place it was just ten years ago.

  10. Kodachromeguy Avatar

    Jim, I was amazed to see (after reading your article) that they used some of my photos too:

    I vaguely recall someone asking me permission, but am not sure if it was this site. At least they did not try to crop off my name.

    I also see many of my photos on Pinterest. Who posts them there? How does that scummy web site moneterize stealing my pictures? Its very odd.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You don’t use CC licenses do you? I would guess not given your copyright watermark right on your images. They straight up stole your work. In my case at least there was a gray area in my licensing that they exploited.

      When your photos show up on Pinterest, that’s some everyday person with a Pinterest account that just pinned your photos to their page on the site. It’s meant to be like clipping photos out of a magazine into a scrapbook. I don’t know how to fight that so I just gave up.

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