Copyright Foolishness | We did it to ourselves..

April 24, 2018  •  Leave a Comment


I've been tracking a story for a few years now...waiting to see how it would play out.

A photographer and PETA (on behalf of a Crested Black Macaque) fight over who has copyrights to a set of images which the Monkey shot with said photographer's camera. Yup. You read that right. Here is the story...and get yourself a glass of [INSERT BEVERAGE HERE]:

One Mr. David J Slater was undertaking a photoshoot of a Crested Black Macaque troup when they got the better of him enough to lay distractions so they could play with his camera. Before he got the camera back one of the monkeys had taken a bunch of photos including a "Selfie". Most reasonable people would agree that the human who owns the camera and was directly responsible for the images being created in the first place is in fact the copyright holder. PETA disagreed and argued that the monkey who snapped the images was entitled to claim ownership...sigh. Foolishness.

I love animals...more than people even if I'm honest and I prefer them in the wild, unimpeded by humans. To suggest however that they are legally entitled to copyrights of images is ridiculous. Don't get me wrong...I believe that our closest non-human relative is incredibly interesting but by my definition they are not PEOPLE. Only people can file claims to assert rights. The 9th circuit court agreed.

Prior to this ruling the photographer and PETA actually reached a settlement which saw Slater agreeing to share profits from the Selfie picture in question, an agreement I thought was sheer lunacy (I used stronger language at the time). As a photographer who shoots weddings among other services, I employ other talented people to work as my second or assistant. Both job roles require image making regardless of whether or not it's done with my camera. All of the images fall under my copyright with those contractors being subject to restrictions on how they may use my images (portfolio) etc. The fact that they made some of the images is irrelevant unless we made some arrangement to the contrary.

I am over the moon happy that the courts rejected that rubbish settlement and elected to play out the case. Now we have a precedent which all photographers should take note of because it's been our inattention to this major detail of our work that got us here. I'm guilty as well...but I learned to be more serious about it after having a fair bit of images stolen over the years. For instance, any images of importance are shared only after my full name (Leigh Miller), Copyright and contact information is inserted into the EXIF. In the past I used my initials (Jr. Miller) but that was far too common and several photo thieves with matching initials have misappropriated my work. Now when I catch someone using one of my images without permission or attribution I have more than an empty threat of a lawsuit to work with.

Every professional photographer should make it a weekend assignment to learn more about Copyright laws in (your) jurisdiction. Never accept organizations like PETA pushing their interpretations on you. Also stop working for FREE. If you don't value your own time and talent nobody else will. You can't pay bills with "exposure" or "shout-outs". Just try it...go down to your bank and ask to pay the mortgage with exposure, see what they tell you. Of course this doesn't extend to personal projects or favours for family and friends. I will typically refer those people to other photographers anyway.

Times are hard and when you are chasing every dollar it might seem like a good idea but trust me on this...customers you raise on free work, rarely grow up to be paying clients. 

And just so we are clear, you can do all the right things and still have images stolen. In just the past two years alone some very major corporations (including two camera manufacturers) have been caught using images they didn't license or attribute to the copyright holders. Knowing how to handle that will ensure that you don't lose your cool and behave unprofessionally while increasing your chances of a favourable resolution.


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