Five years ago last week, I stood in the freezing cold with my friend Jason and took a few handheld photos of a magnificent sunrise at Portland Head Light. I knew I had something to work with, and was excited to get into post and see what I could come up with. I tone mapped the original, then processed that using pinhole and orton techniques, which I was at the time teaching myself. Having worked and reworked the same image several times, I wrote what seems now a prescient caption for the Orton version: “I’m trying to get my money’s worth out of PHL Sunrise.”
Early one morning a couple weeks ago, I walked from my office on Commercial Street the two blocks to Standard Baking Company, where I get a morning bun with nuts and small coffee. When I entered the parking lot a large truck was unloading supplies. On its side was a picture of Portland Head Light, my favorite photographic subject. Immediately, I thought, “That’s an excellent picture.” A fraction of a second later I exclaimed, “Hey, that’s MY photo!” Stunned, I snapped a few photos and proceeded inside the bakery. I mentioned the picture to the woman helping me. She said that was cool. I thought, “Yes, and no.”
When I got back to my desk I looked up the company. Not entirely surprising, they were also using my photo on the header of their website.
I sent an email to the persons listed on the Contact Us page. In the email, I attached the photo I had snapped and requested they immediately purchase a license for use of the photo. Then I waited.
Then, a few days later, I got an email from a guy who said he had made the sign and asked that I please not contact Downeast Food Distributors anymore, that he would take care of it “ASAP.” I sent him my contact information, and expected a phone call.
Then, a few days later, with patience run out and knowing I held all the cards, I sent him an email requesting he immediately call me or I would defend my copyright in the courts. In less than an hour, he called. He congratulated me on my amazing photos and Photoshop skills, told me the sad story about running a small business in a depressed economy, and asked if I wanted to play racquetball with him. He had found the photo using Bing in late 2008. He didn’t see any obvious copyright information or signatures, so figured it was free to use or that nobody would notice. He said Downeast Food Distributors was his biggest client that had promised him lots of future business, and that they were threatening to terminate the relationship. Apparently, according to this guy, they were furious and calling every day to see what he was going to do. They were looking to replace the photo, which, as I told him, is their prerogative. However, it did not change the fact that they owed me for the nearly five years they had it on their truck and website, which is a clear violation of the Creative Commons license. He said he simply was not in a position to pay what I was asking, so we made a deal. Cash, the following morning. I would provide to him a receipt and photo license agreement so his client could continue to use the photo without violation.
The next morning it was supposed to storm. The sign maker called to see if we could delay the payment for a day or two, until the storm had passed and the roads were better. I suggested he get on the road before they turned bad, to which he agreed. An hour or so later, he pulled up in his van where we had agreed to meet, and rolled down his window. I pulled from my Pee-Chee folder the papers I had agreed to provide, and he handed me a stack of money. Then he drove away. It went down just like that. Any onlookers would have justifiably suspected a drug deal had just occurred.
The moral of the story has to be, if you’re going to steal my pictures, don’t plaster them on the sides of large trucks that make deliveries to the locations I frequent. Dumbass.
It cost FAR more to buy the license after my copyright was violated than if he had just asked me prior to using it. I’m usually quite generous with requests to use my photos, and when I charge businesses it’s usually for a very small fee. Next time, hopefully, he’ll contact the copyright owner and secure a license prior to using a photo on client work.