Photographers: Don’t Blame The Content Thief

Birmingham Stephenson Street in winter

If you’re a writer, but you don’t generally produce any images, you’re lucky. You may not think so, but in broad terms the Internet has your back. But if you produce images and don’t generally write, you’re in an entirely different situation. Unlike writers, you will receive little or no respect from the Internet, and that disrespect starts right at the top, with huge powers such as Google and the social media sites, who tacitly encourage what’s quaintly referred to as the “sharing” of other parties’ image matter.

These Web giants could make it difficult and unproductive for the average Web user to simply commandeer images and re-post them without attribution and in breach of copyright. What they actually do, is the opposite. They go out of their way to make it easy, alluring, and highly productive and rewarding for the content thief.


In relation to images on the Web, a content thief is anyone who re-posts a copyright-protected pic without documented permission from the copyright holder. It doesn’t matter if they attribute, link to the photographer’s homepage, or write a lengthy eulogy on how the sun shines out of the photographer’s posterior, it’s STILL legally necessary for anyone re-posting an image online to ensure they have the copyright holder’s permission to do so. If you don’t know whether or not you have permission, YOU DO NOT HAVE PERMISSION.

Longbridge buses in snow 2004

There are limited exceptions for what’s known as ‘Fair Use’, but this is not, as so many re-posters think, just a two-word get-out-of-jail card which allows anyone to steal anything and not be held culpable. To qualify for ‘Fair Use’, the use of an image has to be fair, and justified by a valid context, and properly attributed, and it absolutely must not in any way compromise or damage the copyright owner’s wherewithal to benefit from his or her work. That rules out about 99% of re-posting across the Web.


So, are the vast majority of people re-posting third party images on a site like Twitter actually content thieves, and are they breaking the law? Yes. They are. Will they be sued? Well, whilst it could feasibly happen, the chances are made very, very slim by the setup of the site, and in particular the endemic nature of copyright theft across the platform. If someone steals a photographer’s photo and tweets it, then 500 other users retweet the pic, who, exactly does the photographer sue? He or she can’t sue Twitter because the DMCA states that website owners can’t be held responsible for matter uploaded by third parties. And he/she clearly can’t sue 500 separate individuals, many of whom not even Twitter will be able to identify. It’s hopeless. The problem is that Twitter loopholes the law by design, and it’s far from the only site.

Dramatic New Year Sunset

Google is, if anything, worse. Its Image Search works hand in hand with sites like Twitter to provide an easy source for content thieves. Technically, Google Images is a search engine, but it’s been progressively re-engineered to bypass the source sites, and hand the content directly to the end user. What it also bypasses, is the content owners’ copyright assertions, and that persuades users that they can do whatever they like with any image they find.

A huge proportion of Web users believe they are free to re-post anything they can download from Google Images. That is definitely NOT TRUE. It would be very simple for Google to educate users to the effect that re-posting copyright-protected images without the owners’ permission is illegal, and can result in an expensive law-suit. It chooses not to, because it doesn’t want to lose the traffic. Google know that they’re a go-to resource for feeding massive sites like Twitter, WordPress, the message boards, Tumblr, Pinterest, etc, and that a high proportion of people using Image Search are specifically looking for matter to re-post, almost inevitably in breach of copyright. Google DON’T WANT those people to know they’re breaking the law. If they did, they’d tell them.

Bulls Head Kings Norton 1985


The prospect looks pretty bleak for photographers at present, since almost all recent amendments to the law have been made to better accommodate the re-poster, at the expense of the copyright owner.

And it’s not just the law that copyright owners have to contend with. In cases where a copyright owner complains about the theft of their work, the public will frequently side with the thief. Most people will only see a situation from their own viewpoint. To them, the thief is the person who brought a piece of content into their lives, and the copyright owner is the person who’s trying to take it away. The fact that the content would not exist if it wasn’t for the creator either doesn’t occur to them, or they don’t care. The copyright holder becomes the villain, and you see that time and time again, on social media, on forums, and on blogs…

Exacerbating or even instigating this tendency, the big Web powers use manipulative language such as the word “censorship” to justify their right to exploit image makers. Of course it’s not censorship if a photographer asserts his or her right to control the distrubution of his/her product. But it’s this kind of language from enormous cyber powers that the uninformed masses buy into.

Ah, yes… A photographer has contacted the forum administrator requesting that his work is removed from the boards – the interfering bastard is trying to censor us!

Safeway Store Rubery 2003

This is exactly what the big Web powers want to see. If enough photographers or image makers perceive that asserting their rights will make them unpopular and/or result in trauma, then they’ll learn to accept that it’s the cyber powers who call the shots – not the law.


The mistake so many people make with the whole issue of image copyright theft is to confine it to a simple equation of user ignorance or arrogance vs a photographer’s wrath. But that misses the point, and lets the real villains off the hook. Powers like Google and Twitter are deliberately perpetuating user ignorance, and they should be implored to take more responsibility. Let’s not forget that Twitter has no built-in means to even attribute re-posted images to their sources. It’s worse than Tumblr and Pinterest in that respect.

So let it be clear. Cyber powers thrive on image theft and make a lot of capital out of it. Whilst burying necessary legal warnings in their Terms of Service, these huge cyber powers engineer the ‘front end’ of their resources to encourage the ‘sharing’ of other people’s images, without permission. Numerous big sites not only encourage the instant, unauthorised re-posting of other people’s images – they actually provide the tools to facilitate it and make image theft easy for scrapers and other aggressive re-posters. Once again, it would have been simple for all of these massive sites to make image theft impracticably difficult. They make it easy because, despite the law, they WANT people to do it. So yes, okay, do blame the content thieves, because they’re parasites who use other people’s hard work for their own gain. But blame the greedy, profiteering cyber powers more, because they could stop this anytime they wanted.

Leona Lewis Poster

And finally, whose piccies have I plundered to illustrate this blog post?… Don’t worry, they’re all from my own Flickr account. I took them all, and I own the copyright to everything you see above. I’m first and foremost a writer, but I know what photographers have to put up with, because I am one. And I’m sick to death of being discouraged from putting my best images online by the inevitability that they’ll be commandeered and redistributed for other people’s gain, devalued, demeaned, and trashed. And if I try to do anything about it, I will often be the one who ends up being villified.

There’s a guide to cutting down on image theft in my How To Stop Content Theft on Flickr post.