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The Web Giveth, The Web Stealeth Away

It’s no secret that Web 2.0 has provided a launch pad to success for people who previously would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve their aims. And nowhere is that more true than in the photo business: step forward Rebekka Guoleifsdóttir.

It’s no secret that Web 2.0 has provided a launch pad to success for people who previously would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve their aims. And nowhere is that more true than in the photo business: step forward Rebekka Guoleifsdóttir.

A couple of years ago the world hadn’t even heard of Rebekka, never mind tried to pronounce her surname. Then she taught herself how to use a camera – famously without reading the instructions – and began to post the results on Flickr. She rapidly gained a following, attracted attention from a number of magazines, and within twelve months had secured a major advertising assignment from Toyota: one that had previously been sewn up by a member of Magnum, no less.

Now, this is the kind of story that is guaranteed to make some professional photographers feel a tad peeved. Royally pissed off, even. There you are, touting your portfolio, bending over for clients, handing over ever-higher percentages to agents for a cut of ever-lower fees, and along comes this Icelandic bird who swanks off with a major car campaign.

And, oh yes, she’s almost certainly younger, blonder, slimmer and better looking than you are. Tough: get over it. For so far as Rebekka is concerned, the web certainly giveth.

But the web also stealeth away. Step forward, again, Rebekka Guoleifsdóttir. This week Rebekka is, in her own words, ‘royally pissed off’, having discovered the flip side of Flickr. It seems a UK outfit called Only Dreemin simply ripped off Rebekka’s work, invented a new artist’s name to credit, and set about flogging the images from their own store in Leicester and on eBay.

Now, this is the kind of story which is guaranteed to make some professional photographers experience an emotion almost as difficult to spell as Rebekka’s surname: schadenfreude. But that would be entirely wrong, for as Rebekka says: ‘stealing IS a crime, right?’

Stealing is Not A Crime: Telling The Truth Is

Apparently not. Or not an actionable crime: at least not in England or Iceland. For Rebekka did what appears to be the obvious sensible thing: downloaded the evidence, printed it out and took it to a lawyer who opined that damages would be forthcoming from Only Dreemin. But the best the lawyer managed – before presenting Rebekka with a bill – was for Only Dreemin to remove the images from their site. So she approached eBay, but they did nothing, a fact presumably entirely unconnected with the fact that they list Only Dreemin as a Power Seller.

In fact the only people who seem to care very much are her fans at Flickr. The problem there is that the legal advice they offered, although doubtless well meaning, was mostly worth what she paid for it. And the online community being what it is, a cynic might ask how many of her supporters are running cracked versions of Adobe® Photoshop®, and how many terabytes of file-shared mp3s they have on their hard drives.

But the really interesting thing is where Flickr stands in all of this. It’s an open secret that Flickr plan to begin licensing images at some point, probably later this year. To do that effectively they will not only have to offer a reasonable level of security for high resolution images, but also be prepared to aggressively pursue anyone who steals those images.

Given that Rebekka is undoubtedly a Flickr star she could expect to be one of the main beneficiaries of both Flickr licensing and Flickr protection. If Flickr can’t protect their star assets they may as well pack up any dreams of becoming a stock agency.

So it wouldn’t have been very surprising if Flickr had taken this opportunity to set a precedent by unleashing their lawyers on Only Dreemin. On Monday evening there were apparent signs that this might be happening. Most of Only Dreemin’s web pages, and their entire online store, suddenly disappeared ; calls to their shop as to why the pages had been taken down garnered the cryptic response ‘because we wanted to’.

But the following evening the entire story, Rebekka’s version and the accompanying several hundred supportive comments, also disappeared from Flickr. Why? Because, in Flickr’s own words to Rebekka:

‘Flickr is not a venue for to you harass, abuse, impersonate, or intimidate others. If we receive a valid complaint about your conduct, we will send you a warning or terminate your account.’

We’re Not Censors: We’re Just Dumb

Imagine if someone broke into your home, loaded the contents into your car and drove away. You subsequently discover that not only have you no legal recourse, but that if you or your friends say bad things about the perpetrators – who you know – you will be evicted. You’d be, well, considerably more than royally pissed off.

But according to Flickr, that’s all ok. It’s fine to get ripped off: just don’t make a fuss, or they’ll get medieval on your Icelandic ass.

Of course anyone – that is, anyone except Flickr – could have predicted what would happen next. The online community will tolerate most things, but if there’s one that’s guaranteed to ignite a web-wide firestorm, it’s the C-word. ‘Flickr = Censorship’ was the immediate cry, and within hours the web was awash with attacks on Flickr and their parent company Yahoo, who had replaced Only Dreemin as the villains of the piece. It takes a particular kind of corporate genius to achieve that. One minute you’re the platform that launched an internet heroine, the next you’re worse than the people who ripped her off: and all it took was one dumb suit to make a crass decision born out of panic.

After a few hours as the web’s latest whipping boy Flickr ran up the white flag: they apologised to Rebekka, and reinstated her pages, albeit with many of the comments now missing. But by that time it was too late: the blogs had been launched and the damage done. In the eyes of many, and on countless blogs and websites, Flickr will be forever the company that dumped on their star turn at the first sign of trouble.

It’s a measure of the damage already suffered by Flickr over the incident that company co-founder Stewart Butterfield felt obliged to post a lengthy and grovelling apology – from the middle of the desert no less – when a thread began at Flickr’s help forums entitled ‘Flickr is censoring our photos and comments’. But even that did little to stem the fury, and company staff, preventing further comment, later locked the thread.

We’re Not Crooks: We’re Just Dumb

And what of the original bad guys? After a couple of days Only Dreemin emerged from the rubble where they claimed they’d been hiding from death threats. Fantastic as it may seem, that much may actually be true. Some of Rebekka’s supporters appear to suffer from testosterone overdose, and worse than that, Only Dreemin hadn’t just ripped off a single mother in Iceland: they’d apparently helped themselves to a piece of Dirty Harry, Vito Corleone, Tony Montana and Travis Bickle. So perhaps they had a right to feel nervous.

But their version of what happened leaves a lot to be desired. Essentially their defence is: ‘We’re not crooks, just really, really dumb.’ Briefly, their story is that a company called Wild Aspects and Panoramas Ltd offered them the images; they made some basic research on the deal, signed, and went ahead with their business. When contacted by Rebekka’s lawyers they immediately destroyed the images, and on legal advice avoided any further contact with Rebekka.

Most people will be rolling their eyes and sniggering at that, but for the moment let’s ignore the gaping holes in their story and give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, despite her Flickr fan base, Rebekka isn’t exactly a household name, and her images aren’t that famous. So it’s quite possible that Only Dreemin may have been scammed.

But what about the other images they’ve been selling? Two are by Roy Lichtenstein, one of the most famous artists of the 20th Century, and one of the offerings, ‘Whaam’, is in turn his most famous work. So it’s difficult to believe that a poster company could not be aware of the provenance of those images. And incidentally, in a neat contemporary twist, both Lichtensteins have been…ah… enhanced using Adobe® Photoshop® software.

And if you find that hard to swallow, how about the numerous iconic film stills they’ve been offering? Brando? De Niro? Eastwood? Pacino? All with ‘© Only Dreemin’ plastered across them?

Since launching their defence Only Dreemin have been asked, both directly and on internet forums, to provide written evidence of their dealings with the mysterious and previously unheard of Wild Aspects and Panoramas, and of their licensing deals for other material. The requests have met with silence.

If it walks like a duck and quacks, it’s a duck. And if a company is caught selling images which one of the image creators proves are stolen, and the company is simultaneously selling other images of dubious provenance for which the company cannot provide paperwork, you can bet your bottom Króna that selling ripped off images is at the heart of their business.

Ironically, as the dust settles, it’s clear that Rebekka is the big winner from the whole brouhaha. She may have lost a few thousand quid in sales to Only Dreemin, but she’s gained a lot more than that in publicity, all of it good. They, on the other hand, have been exposed as a bunch of low rent chisellers, and can look forward to interesting discussions with lawyers from the Tate Modern, the Lichtenstein Foundation, and various American film companies.

But the real losers are Yahoo and Flickr. Ever since the former bought the latter in 2005 there have been intermittent grumblings of the ‘Flickr has sold out to The Man’ variety, and could no longer be trusted by their contributors. The Only Dreemin infringements provided Yahoo/Flickr with a high profile, low risk, opportunity to refute that: it would have been trivially easy for them to legally crush Only Dreemin and present themselves as defenders of their contributors’ rights.

Instead they flushed their reputation as the photo community of choice down the toilet, leaving Rebekka to conclude, in a neat Icelandic turn of phrase: ‘I doubt Yahoo gives a flying fuck at a rolling donut who uses Flickr these days.’

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