We hear about Internet piracy and its deleterious effect on creators dozens or hundreds of times every year. In most cases, it’s about music, movies, games, or books that are circulating on peer-to-peer. The arguments rage on and on about whether this piracy is a good thing or a bad thing, whether it provides much-needed exposure to the artist and whether any, many, most, or all of the people who pirate the work would actually have paid for it under other circumstances. Odds are, most regular readers of TeleRead or any other media blog can recite most of the arguments by heart.

And yet, whether or not that harm actually happens, there’s a quite different kind of harm and a different form of piracy affecting people who post their work to the Internet. Insect photographer Alex Wild has written an article for Ars Technica explaining why he’s leaving the photography business in large part due to piracy’s impact on him.

Wild’s departure is not due to the depredations of peer-to-peer, however, but rather due to all the other venues that use his works in their own creations without permission or compensation. Venues such as:

Billboards, YouTube commercials, pesticide spray labels, website banners, exterminator trucks, t-shirts, iPhone cases, stickers, company logos, eBook covers, trading cards, board games, video game graphics, children’s books, novel covers, app graphics, alt-med dietary supplement labels, press releases, pest control advertisements, crowdfunding promo videos, coupons, fliers, newspaper articles, postage stamps, advertisements for pet ants (yes, that’s a thing), canned food packaging, ant bait product labels, stock photography libraries, and greeting cards.

Yesterday evening, while Googling insect references in popular culture, I discovered that a small Caribbean island helped itself to a photograph I took in 2008. My photo shows a slave-raiding ant, a fascinating species that survives as a parasite on the labor of other ants. But the image had been imprinted on the back of a commemorative one-cent piece. Perhaps symbolically, this is one cent more than I received for my part in bringing the coin to the public.

These are uses that would ordinarily bring in $100 to $300 each—not enough to be worth suing over. But sending DMCA notices to all the hundreds or thousands of infringements he finds takes up more time than the piracy would be worth. But he can’t not do it, either, because far from getting added exposure for his work out of the piracy, he finds that if he doesn’t get them taken down, his own website is buried beneath the flood of illicit repostings of his works in search results.

Because copyright law is basically broken when it comes to the Internet, Wild says, it’s draining the time of many creative professionals to keep up with it, driving them (including him) out of the business, and keeping others who might otherwise post their works from doing so in the first place. Yes, the DMCA gives him recourse to demand that illicit copies of his images be taken down—but he’s still out the time and effort it takes to find them and send the notices to every infringer. That’s time he could be spending on something that would earn him more money, instead of safeguarding the money he should be guaranteed from his other work.

(And this isn’t something only commercial photographers need worry about, either. I ran across an article on Fast Company today about parents being upset their baby photos are being ripped off and used as objects of “baby roleplay” on Instagram and other such sites. Not necessarily all unauthorized uses of photos are so terrible—I’m pretty sure the vast majority of LOLcats and other image macros are made without the permission of the original photographer, too—but these examples just go to show how the freewheeling culture of the Internet basically regards any publicly-posted photo as fair game to use and reuse. I’ll even admit to doing the same thing for my TeleRead articles, but courts have ruled that reposting photos as reduced-size thumbnails is a legally-protected fair use, so I don’t worry too much about that.)

Is there any way to fix this? It doesn’t seem like any of the currently-available solutions worked for Wild, and consequently he’s leaving the field and taking an academic job where his salary won’t depend on people not ripping him off. But that’s not really a solution for the broader photographic industry. If everybody took other jobs, there wouldn’t be any source of high-quality photographs left.

It turns out the problem of piracy isn’t always as simplistic as peer-to-peer users who probably wouldn’t have bought something anyway downloading it to hoard it and not even read or watch it. There are cases where it can undeniably harm creators, who find the only way to win is not to play, leaving us poorer as a culture for their loss. Can anything be done to fix that problem?


  1. One point that seems to be ignored in most discussions of how much money creators lose to piracy is that pirate sites and other for-profit companies are making a great deal of money and not sharing it with the copyright owner or their partners in creation/distribution.

    Nothing about this is right, and it’s salting the soil of the creative industry and copyright owners. Everybody except the pirates lose in cases like this.

  2. There is a common misconception that when “creators” stop producing work that the result is “bad”. “Won’t someone please think of the artists” is the common plea of those who support various draconian policies to police the internet or charge people every time they think about a copyrighted work.

    The thing is that copyright has never been about ensuring the livelihood of content creators or even ensuring that their work is profitable. IP law is there to promote science and the useful arts so in terms of public policy we must ask ourselves 1) is a particular art useful and 2) does a particular art need promotion.

    Regarding #1 I would be willing to bet that the planet would keep on turning if all the photographers like Alex Wild hung up their tan pocket vests. Usefulness isn’t about if some type of art is “silly” or “trivial”. Clearly there is demand for such art so that makes it useful. However if the existing body of work is sufficient for all future needs would any additional work be useful?

    Regarding #2 there is almost no type of photography that needs the protection of copyright for promotion. The marginal cost of photography is effectively free. Everyone has a camera on their phones and access to sophisticated editing tools. Humans are taking more photos in a day probably that had been taken during the entire analogue era. If a company needs a photo of an insect that isn’t already in the body of work they could easily just produce it themselves or find someone in the wide world who is willing to do it for free.

    Back before the internet being a photographer took time and significant capitol investment. Those investments needed protection otherwise there would be a shortage of photographs. Today this is no longer the case and therefore stock photography of naturally occurring situations should be lumped in with recipes and fashion as something not subject to copyright protection.

  3. Looking at Alex’s work, I notice that he has a copyright sign on the bottom of his work. However, many of the backgrounds are a solid color, and this mark can easily be cropped out or covered up. If he wants to protect his work better, he needs to put a watermark or text over the ENTIRE image. People often steal images BECAUSE they are lazy- if they have to do more work to remove the artist’s mark, they are less likely to do so.

  4. Mike B, of course, most professional photographers would spend enough money on camera equipment to buy a car, pay the travel costs to go to some out-of-the-way place, trek to an even more out-of-the way place and spend days creeping around looking for the right subject to photograph just so some a**hole can use the image for free in their own project. That makes perfect sense.

    As someone who uses standard camera equipment to take an occasional picture of a bug in my garden, I’d also like to say that getting a decent shot is remarkably hard. You need only look at many of the poor, fuzzy pictures or poor angles that make it hard to id a bug on most sites and in identification books to know that’s true.

    And, I think the point of this article is that professional photographers DO quit because of a**holes who steal their stuff.

  5. Yeah, Mike. Brilliant idea. And all actors should get major roles in movies and TV, or not act, and all authors should pay their way by getting the two or three jobs available teaching writing at college level.

    The real world doesn’t work like that for us creative types. We put our stuff out, as best we can, then hope it will pay off.

    This photographer could have played it a bit smarter by using the tricks Sarah mentioned, but I don’t believe in blaming the victim because others are jerks.

  6. *Chris Meadows* Ah, so I see now (reading the original article is a good thing- I was a bad commenter :P) I do still stand by the opinion that while yes, people do remove watermarks, it is more difficult than cropping out a note at the bottom. At least it might discourage the layman who right clicks and saves as.
    Then again…

    There will always be people who go to great lengths to get something for free: there will always be forgers, swindlers, thieves, and people who are just ignorant. However, I feel that not doing something that you enjoy just because there are dishonest people out there is a bit extreme. People pirate music, but there are still musicians, people pirate games, but there are still game designers…heck, some even work WITH pirates.
    Or put the joke on them:

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