Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Are you a thief in disguise?

One of the consequences of the digital age is that people who would never think of stealing are becoming thieves. They don't mean to do it, they usually don't even know that they're doing it.... but they are. I see it all the time.

I was talking about this issue just today when a good friend (and client) of mine said, "If I scan a picture of my daughter that I bought from a photographer, that's not stealing."
"Yes, it is."
"But I'm not making prints, I'm just putting the picture on Facebook."
"That's stealing and it's illegal."
"But it's my daughter in the picture and I paid for it!"

I hear this sort of argument all the time. Most people think that when they buy a print, they can do whatever they want with it. In fact, buying a print is no different than buying a music CD or a novel. We've all seen the record companies struggle to keep people from uploading their music to file-sharing sites and you can bet that Stephen King's lawyer would have a problem if you uploaded the entire contents of his latest book to Facebook. But tell someone that they can't upload a picture of their child that they bought and they look at you like you're crazy.

The thing you have to understand is that when you buy a photograph, you are not buying the right to reproduce it. Reproduction doesn't just mean making prints.... if you scan it or even take a photograph of it you are reproducing it. In the case of something like Facebook, you are making hundreds, maybe thousands of copies... one for each person who visits your page. This is illegal. It's just as if you owned a television station and broadcast movies that you bought at Wal-mart. Buying a movie at Wal-mart doesn't give you the right to broadcast it and buying a picture from a photographer doesn't give you the right to post it on the web (or send it to someone via email either). It doesn't matter what the subject of the picture is, what matters is who took it. The photographer has rights just as the musician and the writer do. (Did you know that radio stations and nightclubs have to pay a fee in order to play music?)

That's not to say that you can't purchase the rights to put your pictures on the web. You can. When I photograph a wedding I offer all the pictures on hi-res DVD with a limited release of copyright. The release gives you the right to print the pictures or put them online as long as it's for personal use. With portrait sessions I offer digital prints with the same rights and DVD slideshows that can be shared as well. I often post pictures on Facebook from sessions and weddings and my clients use them for their profile picture (I have my web address on them so I get some advertising and they get to share their picture for free. Everyone wins!)

I'll admit that some people are taken aback when they learn that a digital print costs $150. It may seem like a lot but consider the alternative. When you buy a full-size, hi-res image and post it online or email it you have, in effect, given a 20x30 professional portrait to every person you know. Hundreds of people. All of them now have a copy of your portrait. Imagine what it would cost to buy that many prints and mail them out. Plus, there's the added bonus of being able to re-print the image as much as you want forever.

Let's do the math: Sally has 240 friends on Facebook. A sheet of wallets(8) from her child's school pictures costs $20. It would cost $600 to buy a wallet-sized picture for every friend she has on Facebook. However, for $150 she can buy a digital print which she shares with everyone on Facebook and since she has a release of copyright, she can go down to the drugstore and they will make prints for her or holiday cards or a picture-pillow or anything else that they do with pictures nowadays. $150 is a bargain.

I guess part of the problem is that everyone uses digital camera's now and they all share their pictures on the Internet so it seems wrong that they would get a picture taken and not be able to share it that way. But we photographer's have to eat too and we can't support our families if people buy one picture and email it to everyone in the family instead of buying a couple of sheets of wallets (or a digital print). There's little we can do to stop it short of threatening to sue people all the time and no one wants to do that. I always make sure I educate my clients on the benefits of having their pictures retouched and printed by me. There can be no doubt that a print from me with a full retouch is head-and-shoulders above the same picture printed at a drugstore. Still, some people will pay good money for a professional photographer and print the pictures themselves (which is a little like buying a new BMW and painting it with a can of RustOleum.)

If you feel you must be able to post your pictures online, ask your photographer what he can do to help you. We want our customers to be happy.... we just don't want them to steal from us.

Booray Perry is a wedding and portrait photographer in Tampa FL.