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Really Stupid Criminals: The Wacky World Of Web Designers

It’s not often we find ourselves in agreement with the big beasts at Corbis and Getty Images, still more rare that we cheer their rottweiler legal departments [careful now – Ed]. But we’re open-minded types here at EPUK Towers, so we were highly entertained by the Guardian’s recent article on internet image theft. It seems that the Guardian has discovered that some people steal pictures from some other people to use on websites. The big news is that some of those other people are photographers represented by Corbis and Getty, whose legal departments have taken to pursuing the miscreants.

The Guardian article homes in on two examples: Geoff Cox, ‘who runs Quest Cars, a small cab company in Taunton’, and Julia Casimo, ‘who runs a small accountancy firm in Liverpool’. Note the use of the word ‘small’: the entire pitch was that these are local businesses who have suddenly found themselves bullied and threatened by evil foreign corporations. Casimo had been presented with a bill for £2,385.25 for unauthorised use of pictures; Cox a bill for £1,300. These were apparently both for one-year licenses. If they had licensed the images properly they would have paid £985 and £440 respectively for five-year terms. Casimo described the sum she had been asked to pay as “out of all proportion”.

The question is: out of all proportion to what, exactly? After all if the images play a critical part in a website which produces business, then paying for good pictures makes sound commercial sense. Fortunately Quest Cars quote their prices online, making it possible to not only put in context the cost of photography to Quest, but even more interestingly compare that cost with somebody – for instance a photographer – using Mr Cox’s services.

The figures make illuminating reading. The average cost of hiring a taxi from Quest Cars is 74.5 pence per minute, or £44.70 per hour. How do we know? Simple. Take the price quoted for a destination on the Quest website, check it against the time quoted for that journey on the RAC website, and you have Quest’s price per minute for usage.

Now let’s compare that with Getty’s price per minute for Quest’s website picture usage. If Quest had legally licensed a picture for 5 years it would have cost them £440; as it happened they didn’t and therefore got landed with a bill for £1,300 for only one year. That works out at approximately 15 pence per hour, or 0.25 pence per minute. But if Mr Cox had legally licensed the picture the cost would have been a mere penny an hour, or 0.017 pence per minute.

So just to put it in context, if Getty Images CEO Jonathan Klein hitches a ride with Mr Cox, it will cost Getty £44.70 an hour; but if Mr Cox uses Getty to promote his gas guzzling services it will cost Quest Cars £0.01 per hour. In fact Mr Cox only needs to get behind the wheel for less than 10 hours to cover the cost of licensing an image for 5 years. So perhaps Casimo is right when she says that the proportions are wrong: just not in the way she means.

But here’s the thing. Licensing pictures legitimately is a recognised business expense: it’s tax deductible. So if the likes of Cox and Casimo simply played by the rules the pictures would actually cost them considerably less than they claim. In fact for all the whining in the Guardian article, even Getty’s fees for unauthorised use can be written off against tax, something that seems to have escaped Ms Casimo the accountant.

However we’re not completely heartless here at EPUK. After all, Messrs Cox and Casimo didn’t actually build their own websites and didn’t themselves steal Getty’s pictures: they paid somebody else to do that, albeit unwittingly. In a sense they’re just collateral damage in the 21st Century intellectual property wars.

So what about the people who do the actual stealing? Most web designers spend a lot of time on the web: it’s the fact that they call themselves web designers that’s the giveaway. So it’s hard – really, really hard – to believe that any of them are not aware of the legalities of image use on the web.

A major source for the Guardian article are the Sitepoint forums, which describes itself as a ‘fast growing online media company and information provider targeting the Web professional market, specifically Web Developers and Designers.’ The actions by Getty and Corbis have generated close to 1,000 posts, and if anyone has any illusions about the attitude of many web designers to photographers’ copyright this post from one designer called Cakey should set them right: ‘The whole POINT OF GETTY IMAGES IS SO PEOPLE CAN USE THEIR IMAGES, ROYALTY FREE.’

A few – very few – posts do make the point that copyright infringement is theft; one even goes so far as to point out that the infringers would feel different if they had images at Getty that had been stolen. But such opinions are a tiny minority, and anyone daring to point out the realities of copyright law risked being flamed and accused of working for Getty. The general tone is one of panic and defiance, fuelled by the kind of pseudo legal advice that would cause blushes on even some photographers’ forums. At SitePoint it’s not so much a case of the blind leading the blind as the ignorant briefing the uninformed. Here are some titbits of webbie wisdom, and yes, it is interesting that they all use false names:

The presciently named Mr. Bankrupt was panic stricken: ‘Check this out guys, Corbis mean business:
http://www.lightstalkers.org/corbis_wins__20_million. Corbis is owned by Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, so they can afford the best lawyers. What can we do?’

Ishumko shared his hotline to the finest legal advice: ‘I talked to a copyright lawyer on the phone when this started. He never heard of Getty Images.’

Dynamed pondered: ‘I wonder if this whole Getty thing isn’t a phishing attempt (or similar scam) to get people to provide credit card or bank account information in order to pay the “fines”’.

Others, such as The Awakened One, appear simply deranged:
‘If you entice someone to commit a crime, it is not a crime. It is called entrapment. From what I have observed by studying Getty’s site and their agreements, Getty’s methods are designed to entrap and entice the unsuspecting with pictures that contain their logo and terms like Royalty Free. Essentially, it appears that they are depending upon the good natured adults of this predominantly Christian nation to comply with their demands.’

But when the chips are down and the lawyers come knocking the big talk disappears: literally. One SitePoint regular, realising that Getty were probably monitoring the posts, finally spoke to a real lawyer and began deleting their wisdom. Again and again and again and again:

‘I’m deleting all my comments. A quick search on Corbis in Google brings up this page at the top of their rankings. Not too sure about the implications just yet.’

‘I’m deleting my comments, as advised by my solicitors.’

‘I’m deleting my comments.’

‘Deleting my comments… eventually I will publish everything’

‘Comment deleted’

Given the attitudes on display it’s pretty hard to feel any sympathy for the SitePoint crew. The Guardian’s subhead described them as ‘careless web developers’, but that’s disingenuous at best. Back in the last century copyright and intellectual property were obscure issues of interest mainly to specialist lawyers, photographers and writers. But the digital age has changed all that: copyright got sexy. Practically very tin pot website in the world has a reference on it to copyright, including those built and run by the likes of those at the SitePoint forums who build their business by stealing other people’s property.

All that’s happening is that the technology that enabled their thieving is now developing to the stage where it can identify the thieves. Those who have been caught out try to characterise themselves as ‘the little people’ oppressed and extorted by malevolent corporations. But that’s just balls. One of the most common kinds of posts on the EPUK forums invariably begins ‘I’ve just found some pictures of mine on a website…’: websites built and run by exactly the kind of people now caught in the Getty/Corbis legal crosshairs.

The actions by Getty and Corbis may appear heavy-handed to some, but individual photographers and small agencies know how hard it is to prevent copyright theft, and even harder to collect from the culprits. One individual at SitePoint even brags about how he saw off a photographer in the past, hiring lawyers to threaten a suit for slander against the hapless smudger.

But now the crooks have come up against someone bigger and nastier than they are.

Well, tough.

EPUK is discussing:

Copyright infringements and how to manage them DACS Payback'Crafted in Britain' by Rob Scott Photographing in public places - where/when/is it allowed?

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