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Consume And Be Consumed

We believe in plain speaking here at EPUK Towers, so we were impressed by this recent quote from The Consumerist website: ‘People are always complimenting us on our photos. The quality of the photo work shown on The Consumerist mainly stems from our preternatural ability to steal images from Flickr.’

Well, you’ve got to admire the balls on the writer, one Ben Popken: if you’re going to be a crook you may as well be honest about it.

Ben had plenty more to say on The Consumerist’s policy of hijacking images from elsewhere and using them without payment or even a byline. ‘If people want credit, they can ask for it. If people want their photo down, they can ask us. Otherwise, we’ll just go back to using the best photos we can find in order to illustrate our posts. If you guys want a bunch of ugly ass retarded stock photos all the time, you’re in the fucking wrong place. Credit is more trouble than its worth because then we would have to deal with people bitching all day that we didn’t spell their name correctly, or they want their name and not their Flickr ID and so on and so forth.’

Now where photo sharing is concerned many professional photographers feel the stupid Flickrs deserve all they get, and with the likes of Thomas Hawk it’s hard not to simply point and laugh. However when it came to The Consumerist – motto: ‘Capitalism is broken, help us fix it’ – the Flickrs weren’t going to take this bending over. After all The Consumerist bills itself as a site that helps consumers, not rips them off. The ensuing storm contained comments worthy of the Alamy blog:

‘f$%k Consumerist Thieves!’

‘Your earlier blog post basically telling Flickr users to fuck off was astonishing. You just wound up sounding like a monumental asshole, apparently to feed your ego.’

‘Wow – that “Ben” dude is a real ass.’

‘A truly despicable stance’

‘Popken’s brazen “shrugging off” of artists’ rights is appalling’

‘I’m baffled by the total disrespect for photographers’ rights’

‘A bizarre attitude coming from a publication that is ostensibly out to protect “the little guy”.’

The response clearly took its toll on Ben. Within a few days he had more to say on The Consumerist’s use of photography, but this Ben was, well, different. ‘Sorry, Flickr, We are a jerkface,’ he began. ‘We’ve been using Flickr photos, but haven’t been giving people linkbacks or attribution. Understandably, this recklessness has angered many in the Flickr community. For this, we are sorry. In previous posts, we have expressed cavalier disregard for copyright with regards to Flickr. These comments were infantile and we regret them.’

Lots more groveling followed, along with promises to remove any offending material. However Ben’s attempts at crisis management met with limited success, not least because as fast as The Consumerist could remove images, the Flickrs gleefully exposed new thefts. And very oddly, given Ben’s apparent contrition, his original bragging of his skills at picture theft remain on-line.

But in a professional context does any of this actually matter? After all, it’s just Flickr schoolyard stuff, right? Well, yes and no. For one thing The Consumerist isn’t just a site thrown up in an afternoon by a couple of teengeeks. By their own account they are pushing 4 million page views a month, and estimates of the ad income from those views range between $25,000 and $80,000 pm. And it’s part of the much larger Gawker Media group, with an estimated ad stream of around $2 million per year. So one thing The Consumerist definitely is not is non-commercial.

And for another, like it or not, Flickr will almost certainly enter the stock photography business, possibly as early as this year. Which leads to the most important point: hardly any of the players involved have the faintest idea what they’re doing when it comes to buying and selling images. People who like to complain that image licensing is too complex like to point the finger at Rights Managed as the prime culprit; hence their arguments for Royalty Free or Creative Commons licenses. But a quick glance at many photo sharing and similar sites reveals plenty of people who think Royalty Free means…uh…free. And much of the brouhaha over The Consumerist centred on varying and contradictory interpretations of what a Creative Commons license actually means. Compared to these Rights Managed appears a paragon of simplicity: you need a picture for this purpose, so it costs that much.

But angry Flickrs may be the least of The Consumerist’s problems. Having mostly placated the amateurs with promises to play fair in future, The Consumerist was suddenly exposed in the Photo Business Forum as having instead apparently taken to stealing watermarked photos from… Getty Images!

The Consumerist likes to brag about their ‘team of crack lawyers’, so we poured a couple of large ones and settled back to enjoy what promised to be a clash of legal titans. Imagine our surprise and disappointment then, when the Getty picture was suddenly removed from the Consumerist – after Popken received a call from a photographer querying the usage. What made the removal so strange was that ‘everything is above board’ in Popken’s words. ‘We have a deal with Getty. I’m not sure whether the official a-ok was pushed to my account so that’s why the watermark appears.’ And then the watermark – and the picture – disappeared.

Just to confuse matters further, Popken’s Gawker boss Lockhart Steele popped up to claim that The Consumerist has a ‘comprehensive licensing agreement’ with Getty. But if that’s the case why remove the picture? And if that’s not the case what’s the watermarked version doing still lurking here, buried deep in The Consumerist archives? And anyway: what was that about not using ugly ass retarded stock photos?

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