The Challenges of Protecting Your Copyrights Online

Copyright logoLast week Chase Jarvis posted a very intriguing short documentary film about a stolen image from Flickr (the film was created by FStoppers). In short, Noam Galai posted a self-portrait photograph of himself screaming and it was circulated worldwide. It ended up on the cover of magazines, books, spray-painted on walls, used in propaganda brochures, etc. The only payment he ever got for it was when National Geographic paid him to use it on one of their magazines covers. (Major props to NG for doing it right).

The internet is a blessing and a curse for visual artists. Never has it been easier to promote and distribute our work for thousands, even millions, of people to see. But never has it been easier for the morally handicapped to steal our work as well. What’s a hard-working, visual artist entrepreneur to do?

The problem isn’t just a concern for photographers. Filmmakers can be equally concerned. It’s very easy for someone with the right tools to grab your video off the internet, or record it straight to their computer, then re-upload it as their own. Kind of like what happened to EventDV Top 25-er Michael Y. Wong of Canada. Here’s one of his wedding films:

If you can’t see this video, click here.

Then an unethical, most likely untalened wedding videographer out of Las Vegas apparently downloaded Michael’s video, added his own watermark, then uploaded it to YouTube:

If you can’t see this video in your RSS reader or email, click here.

The reason you hear no music is because YouTube stripped it out due to music copyright violation. (More on that a little later). Frankly, I can’t believe the cajones of this guy. (If you would like to add to the list of comments on his YouTube channel to express your disgust, click here).


So the question is, what can you do? Do you just refuse to post your work online? Do you watermark your photos in conspicuous places? You have to promote yourself, so keeping your work “hidden” and requiring clients to come to you is not an efficient option. Here are suggestions for what you can do to protect yourself:

  • Be unique: the more unique your work is, the harder it will be for someone to get away with stealing it because your signature style will be apparent.
  • Be ubiquitous: ironically, one way of protecting yourself is putting MORE of yourself out there. The reason people were able to know that Michael Wong’s work was stolen is because so many people have seen his work, it was easy to spot the thief.
  • Have contracts with subcontractors: by law, unless stipulated otherwise by a formal agreement, anyone who creates an image or video automatically owns the copyrights to it. That means, if you hire someone to assist you on a gig, if you do not have a contract with that person, they would have grounds to claim copyright ownership of any photos they created or videos they shot for you. So, have signed agreements in place with all your contractors. If you have employees vs. contractors, it is implied the work they do for you is “work for hire.” But to be safe, have an employment contract in place.
  • Don’t Infringe: here’s the rub when it comes to Michael’s case. Because his video infringes on the music copyrights from the songs he used, even if it was worth taking this guy to court, he wouldn’t have a case. Based on my understanding, you can’t claim copyright infringement if the piece you’re protecting is itself in copyright violation. Lesson: if it’s a video or film you want to have protected, make sure you’ve cleared the rights to all music, photos, etc. you use.
  • Register: register your work with the copyright office.
  • Laugh: in order to stay sane, be able to laugh at the situation. The same thing has happened to StillMotion that happened to Michael Wong. When I interviewed SM owner Patrick Moreau about it a while back, he just laughed it off. I know copyright violation is not a laughing matter in general, but if it happens to you, if you are able to laugh at it, it will go a long way towards keeping you healthy. (Laughing at it doesn’t mean not doing anything. It’s just a matter of perspective).

You have art for people to see it. The internet is still the best way to get it out there. If you’re good, expect that people will copy you and/or downright steal from you. It’s part of the biz. Learn how to play the game to your advantage, and you will survive.

Chase was also part of a fascinating panel about copyright law that is worth watching. Click here to watch it.

4 thoughts on “The Challenges of Protecting Your Copyrights Online

  1. Ugh. So sorry to hear this happened to Michael and that it happens at all.

    I mean, when you’re caught, you’re so busted. Publicly. Hard to believe it’s worth the risk.

    Just a few days ago I discovered someone has stolen dozens of my blog posts (titles, copy, photos and illustrations) and reposted the posts (verbatim) as their own on their Google ad word, double sidebar and banner ad loaded, blog. They’ve taken over two years of my blog posts.

    Am not overly concerned because I’ve reported them to their host (there’s no contact link to reach them directly) and I’m certain their blog will eventually be taken down but in the meantime they are very likely damaging my search engine ranking by creating redundant copies of my content.

    1. Wow. That sucks Stacie. I hope their blog is taken down soon. I didn’t even touch on stealing written content, but your situation is equally as bad.

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