Turn pirates into customers: a smart approach to the photo problem

We’re in the age of the image. Popular websites like Facebook (s fb), Tumblr and Instagram let users enter delightful worlds of pictures and express themselves with images of their own.

Photos everywhere mean more places for creativity and beauty — but not everyone is happy. Professional photographers are furious when they see people help themselves to their work without payment or permission. Why should these people use someone else’s labor for free?

It’s a fair point. Unfortunately, though, the solution to unlicensed images has often proved worse than the problem itself. As photos spread across the internet, bands of lawyers are springing up who offer themselves as hired-gun enforcers to image owners. When they find a target, they squeeze them for thousands of dollars and take a cut of the loot.

This is not some rare example. Major image owners like Getty possess image recognition software that lets them quickly detect unauthorized use of their images. The legal settlements they collect have become a major source of revenue.

So what’s wrong with this approach? After all, image owners have the copryight and users should know better. The problem is that, in most cases, there’s little connection between the harm and the damages. When a blog or a small business or a Tumblr user posts a picture, they don’t deprive the owner of thousands of dollars but are simply using an image that could, in most cases, be replaced with many others.

The culprits in these cases are usually careless or ignorant yet they are treated as willful criminals. The approach of Getty and others reflects the mistakes of the music industry in response to MP3s — failing to distinguish between average fans and professional pirates, and embittering a whole generation of users.

That’s why the copyright perspective of micro-stock agency Dreamstime is so much more sensible. Unlike other image owners, Dreamstime does not sic lawyers on people who like its photos. Instead┬áthe company, which claims to have more than 5 million users, responds by sending them a notice to take the image down or else to buy a license at the going rate which can be as low as $8.

According to CEO Serban Enache, this approach actually leads to better business.

“We want to respond to copyrighted images but we want to do it in a different, non-heavy-handed way,” said Enache in a recent phone interview. “This is very successful way of turning unauthorized users into customers. Once they learn of the license, they often obtain larger licenses.”

Meanwhile a Getty spokesperson said the company is not considering such an approach: “The DMCA [copyright] takedown process is not an adequate remedy by itself because it does not ensure that our photographers receive compensation for use of their images.”

This perspective seems misguided. While professional pirates deprive creators of their due, the typical photo infringer is not taking money from photographers’ pockets — they would never have received that money in the first place (I suspect that most of the money Getty collects goes to the company and lawyers, not to the photographers).

Finally, the reality is that photos aren’t worth what they used to be. We’re no longer in the days of darkrooms but instead live in a world where everyone has a camera all the time. Photos are increasingly more commodity than art.

The point is that, in the age of Instagram, Getty and others should save their big guns for the real bad guys and start treating casual infringers as potential customers rather than hardened criminals.

(Image by PLRANG via Shutterstock)