DPP Home Business Vigilantes

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Taking matters into your own hands can backfire, so don’t play the fool when enforcing your copyrights. In the Wild West world of the Internet, everything isn’t necessarily as cut-and-dried as it seems.

In this age of digital imaging, it's only a matter of time before anyone who distributes images, electronically or otherwise, will find his or her images used without consent and copyrights infringed. Since one can make a perfect copy of an original image by simply copying the digital file, the technical issues that once made it difficult to copy and redistribute an image are no longer a hindrance. Coupled with seemingly widespread ignorance about copyrights—as exemplified by the oft-intoned misapprehension that images appearing on the Internet are in the "public domain"—infringement is inevitable.

When one considers the time and cost of the legal proceedings to enforce copyrights, and the limitations of certain types of remedies, it's perhaps not surprising that photographers may resort to other approaches for remedying infringement. For example, while a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice can be an effective way of quickly stopping an instance of infringement on the web, even an effective takedown notice won't help compensate for the use of an image prior to the time it was pulled down. Since it's natural for those whose rights are violated to want to exact some measure of revenge, albeit frequently couched under the guise of justice, it's easy to understand why photographers would channel their creative energies in pursuit of "creative" copyright remedies. However, there's a danger to pursuing such remedies without being fully aware of the potential consequences; in some circumstances, such efforts may be counterproductive.

The Case Study: "Outing A Thief"
Early in 2011, California-based photographer Syl Arena took matters into his own hands after discovering an instance of infringement that hit close to home. Arena discovered that someone created a PDF containing all 409 pages of his book, Speedliter's Handbook: Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlites (Peachpit Press, 2010), and posted the file to the self-publishing website, Scribd.com. By the time Arena discovered his book on Scribd.com, it had already been downloaded 101 times. Arena promptly prepared and sent a DMCA takedown notice to Scribd.com, and the next day, he received an email from Scribd.com confirming that the website pages with his book had been removed (despite the relatively quick response to the takedown notice, Arena noted the infringing copy of his book was downloaded another 14 times after he sent the notice). With the infringing copy of the book offline, there would be no further infringement, at least through Scribd.com. So far, so good.

However, Arena's efforts to remedy the infringement didn't end with the DMCA takedown notice. After his initial success, Arena investigated the identity of the person whose account was used to post his book on Scribd.com. His investigation identified Ann Hillsgrove, a self-described amateur photographer, and Arena then prepared an "open letter" to Hillsgrove on his blog, speedliting.com. In an entry published on his blog, entitled "Hey Ann Hillsgrove, I Think That You And 101 Other Photographers Stole From My Family," Arena identified Hillsgrove, included a snapshot of her Facebook page, and various other information about her, which he was able to gather from the Internet. After "outing" Hillsgrove as the person he believed was responsible for the infringement, he then proceeded to explain who he was, the difficulties that he encountered on the project (even noting that he ran out of money halfway through the project), and that he expected the return on his efforts—royalties from the sale of his book—would "help [him] feed and educate [his] children in the future." According to Arena's open letter, "[b]eyond the lost income, this has also cost a significant amount of time and created a good bit of stress." Arena concluded the open letter with the self-answered question, "[w]hat were you thinking? I'm thinking that you and 101 other photographers stole from my family."


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