While the Internet may seem like a free-for-all, it is not a free marketplace for obtaining photographs without permission.
Under federal law, photographs taken since 1978, whether they are digital or film images, are protected under copyright regulations from the moment they are taken through the life of the photographer plus 70 years. That means it is against the law to use or reproduce these pictures without the photographer’s permission at the risk of civil or criminal liability. Copyright law protects photographers from unauthorized users downloading pictures online and using them for promotional or advertising purposes.
“You own the copyright when you take the photo,” said Robert Pettus, owner of RDP3 Photography in Raleigh. “It’s kind of a touchy situation and an emotional one for some folks.”
Pettus said he has watched his images appear on other sites without his permission.
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“I’ve had it happen a couple of times,” Pettus said. “I contacted the person and said, ‘That is my photo, I don’t mind you using it actually, but you didn’t ask permission and I need to be compensated for that.’ ”
Pettus said even a nominal fee is usually enough.
Recently, local photographer Justin Cook accused UNC-Chapel Hill of publishing one of his photographs on a Facebook page without permission. UNC has agreed to pay Cook for the photo and, as part of the settlement, he has insisted on a public forum involving several of UNC’s departments to discuss the importance of creative rights.
Pettus said Facebook and other social media avenues have made it easy for people to capture images that don’t belong to them.
“I try to put my stuff out there, as do other professional photographers, at 1,200 x 800 (resolution) ... so you can’t actually print it,” Pettus said. “People still right-click on it and grab it.”
Pettus said watermarks, or stamps with owner information placed directly on the photo, don’t necessarily work because they can be removed. But he said many photos online carry data that traces them back to the owner.
For Pettus and his photography business, proper credit of creative property is usually more important that cashing a check.
“If you’re in a really incredible magazine and it says underneath it “Photo taken by Robert Pettus,” and 10,000 people saw it in print, that definitely does something for you,” he said.