When you visit a photographer’s website and browse through their portfolio of images, isn’t it a rather basic assumption that you are looking at that photographer’s actual work? Who would imagine someone would have the cojones to take images from another photographer’s website, re-label them with their own studio copyright watermark (!), and then repost them as samples of their own work?
The thought of such slimy behavior is beyond most of our imaginations. But, in a story so bizarre I couldn’t have made it up, a photographer named Meagan Kunert became famous overnight for doing exactly that. She lifted photographs from other photographers’ websites, placed her watermark on them, and then even wrote up fictitious blog posts about the “clients” in the photos, giving them new names and fabulous new love stories!
She got caught, and her career is over. In her apology blog post (http://www.potsc.com/potsc/how-i-ruined-my-career/), she reported that her family is in a huge financial mess and that it’s been hard for her to re-enter the workforce. Why? Because employers now Google prospective employees. It has been said that “the Internet never forgets,” but I’d like to add that it also constantly reminds. It will forever remind people of something Meagan Kunert did back in 2012. Her children will see it, and so will her grandchildren. Her classmates will gossip about it at the next high school reunion.
It was such a public trouncing that I assumed nobody would ever try such a thing again.
Wrong. This week we have her beat. Reportedly, 37 photographers were “Meagan Kunert-ed” (yes, it’s a verb now) by a photographer named Benjamin Ramalho, who operated a website called 247protography.com. Don’t bother looking for it, the site is gone, as is his Facebook fan page and pretty much any other sign of his former photography business. From what I did see of it, he was an amazing photographer with a stellar reputation and a remarkable eye. That’s because many of the images in his portfolio were “best of the best” images lifted from 37 other photographers!
Thanks to a new site called http://stopstealingphotos.tumblr.com, operated by a photographer from Ohio named Corey Doyle Balazowich, photographers who steal images are now being “outed” publicly. As soon as Balazowich gets a report that a photographer’s image has been stolen, she gets to work doing a reverse image search on the thief’s website. (Google offers a reverse image search where you can paste an image’s link, and instantly it will show everywhere on the Internet that image appears—and even “visually similar images.”) She then captures (and publishes) screen grabs of the counterfeit use of the image along with the original one. And it’s quite effective! All of the websites she has recently reviewed were gone by the time I looked for them.
This type of intellectual property theft is serious. In 2000, a photographer named Teresa Halton published one of my images and used the name of my business as her Internet domain. We asked her to take it down and she refused. A federal jury awarded me $240,000 in damages. Having been through the process, and having seen what a jury can do to an infringer taught me that these copyright thieves are playing with fire.
I contacted the same attorney who successfully argued my lawsuit and asked him if it was worth his time to represent the 37 photographers in a similar suit. Not only was he willing to take the case (based on the facts he was given), but he told me that the 37 photographers could band together and form a “plaintiff joinder,” where they’d split the cost of litigation 37 ways.
The penalties for copyright infringement are enormous. The plaintiff can be awarded anywhere between $200 and $150,000 for each image infringed. Federal statutes triple the maximum and also award attorney’s fees and court costs if the act is willful. In the situation of Benjamin Ramalho, screen grabs from his 247protography fan page show that he was asked to take the images down and he became indignant with his refusals. This is an example of willful infringement. If you think about the number of images that were up on the website, and consider that he could face $450,000 per image copied (plus legal costs), you can see how devastating this could be.
My attorney’s firm will be sending out notices to the parties informing them of their option to join the plaintiffs or acquiesce their awards in this case. Of course I’ll keep you informed of this situation as it unfolds.
If you find that one of your images has become a counterfeit sample for another photographer’s portfolio, here is my recommended course of action:
1) Find out who hosts the offender’s website. This is quite simple. Go to www.whois.net and type in the offender’s web address. It will show something called a “WHOIS” information profile. On that profile, scroll down to the bottom to see which website has the “Name Servers.”
2) Go to the name server’s website, and look through their contact information for “How to file a DMCA complaint.” If that doesn’t pop up, simply Google, “DMCA Complaint Form,” fill it out and email it to the customer service contact at the web hosting company. On the form, you testify under oath that your copyright is being violated, and the host must close the offending website down or inherit the status of willful violator.
This act was created out of practicality. YouTube or Facebook has no way to check every image or video they receive against copyrighted works! So, they freely accept all submissions (subject to their terms and conditions—the long window of legalese that you skim through to find the “accept” button at the end), unless and until they are informed that there is a violation. Then they take it down. 247protography.com is no longer online, most likely as the result of what is called a “DMCA Takedown.”
3) Take screen grabs of any online discussions of the offender admitting or denying the infringement. In the case of Benjamin Ramalho, he did both. Initially he vehemently denied wrongdoing. After a firestorm of angry complaints (and proof) surfaced on his Facebook Fan Page, he apologized for his actions. His apology proves the infringement. His initial refusal to take down the images after he was “outed” proves that the infringement was willful.
4) Look through the counterfeit website and perform reverse image searches by using Google’s fantastic tool (http://www.google.com/insidesearch/features/images/searchbyimage.html). If there are other photographers who have had their images stolen, take screen grabs of the original and the fake, and email them to the victims. Open a discussion to see if they would like to band together and form a multi-plaintiff lawsuit.
Most people are nervous about launching any legal action for fear of the hassle and cost. Doing a multi-plaintiff claim by banding together with other victims reduces your costs immensely. And filing suit is quite simple. Your attorney will just ask you for your screen grabs and file the case in Federal Court. The infringer must then respond within a certain time frame, or default the case and lose everything. I can assure you that filing suit with a valid claim, through a reputable attorney, is quite easy.
Competition in photography is intense. There are loads of resources available nowadays that enable unqualified photographers to masquerade as reputable professionals. These include pre-made “template” websites and “Shooting Workshops,” in which a true professional photographer sets up a highly stylized shoot (using models, stylists, professional lighting gear, etc.) under the guise of instruction, and allows the neophyte to snap photos, filling his/her portfolio with these pre-staged and controlled images.
Now, throw counterfeit portfolios into the mix. If you are a photographer in search of paid work, and your portfolio is weak, it is tempting (to some) to “borrow” images from real professionals and instantly make your portfolio gorgeous.
If this kind of fraudulence goes unchecked, how will true professional photographers have any credibility? In the recent case of a wedding photographer, the bride and groom filed a lawsuit because the photographer shot some of the images at a tilted angle (this is often done for a stylized effect). The judge quickly dispatched the case by awarding the bride and groom a complete refund of all of the fees, as well as allowing them to keep all of the photos and image files. And the reason? The judge said, “We all know how you professional photographers are…”
It is vitally important to keep our profession untarnished. Photographers perform a priceless service. They are storytellers, they are image-makers, and they provide timeless memories of the most remarkable moments in people’s lives.
As my wife and approach our own fifth anniversary, I feel a tremendous amount of love, respect and admiration for our wedding photographers, Jessica Claire and Jennifer Bebb, who did such an amazing job capturing our wedding day. We’re able to relive that beautiful day through these photographs. And that’s what photographs provide us—the ability to relive. And to share big moments with our children and grandchildren.
We should all be troubled when a photographer is deceitful. And we should all take swift action if we see that our precious work—or someone else’s— has been “misappropriated.” Let’s work together to keep this wonderful professiona clean.