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'We're being screwed': photographers and designers vent over 'stolen' images

How's this for frustrating: you're an Australian graphic designer and you find your work used without permission on a billboard to advertise an art exhibition in China.

This is what happened to graphic designer Karena Colquhoun – and she's not alone in feeling robbed.

A story last week about the duping of a Newcastle artist's photo, without permission, onto thousands of T-shirts to be sold at menswear giant Lowes, prompted emails from dozens of angry artists with similar stories.

They reported having their images stolen from the internet without their permission and placed, sometimes with small modifications, on T-shirts, websites, cigarette cases, stickers, phone covers, posters promoting nightclubs, CD album covers and even hardcover books.

But fighting copyright infringements was fraught with difficulty, they said: offenders often pleaded ignorance, refused to compensate them and wouldn't pull the infringing content.

They said those that were contrite offered very little compensation – unless sued.


Karena Colquhoun, who runs Magic Jelly, an Adelaide design company, last year found its logo being used in an adapted form on a billboard to promote an exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum.

"It's both bizarre and very upsetting to see your work taken without permission, so that you not only are not compensated, but lose your right to consent and control the quality and context of your work," she said.

Colquhoun discovered the plagiarism using Google's "Search by Image" and TinEye's "Reverse Image Search".

"Every so often I'll randomly search my images, and I always find people using them without permission," Colquhoun said.

Sheila Smart, a professional Sydney photographer, was among the few who said they had successfully litigated against offenders.

A UK police department that used a snapshot of hers in a brochure about crime settled for a "fairly large sum" – about ten times more than what a legitimate licensing would have cost.

She has also settled several cases in the US and Canada (with 10 still pending). One involved a company that settled with her US lawyer without any negotiation when she found a popular image of hers on their Facebook page. It cost them $8500.

In Europe, she has negotiated a $1700 payment from Romanian publishers that used one of her images on the front of a book.

Smart said she didn't pursue Australian offenders as often because laws here meant she was only entitled to what she would have received had they licensed the image legitimately – unless she could prove "wilful use".

However, in one instance, a state government tourism website that used her images settled for a "nice sum".

Others have not been so fortunate. Adam Jackson of Tuggerah on the Central Coast in NSW said he had a photo of a car taken without permission from his website and put on T-shirts sold at Kmart, with the car's number plate still visible.

The owner of the car was "extremely upset" about this, and when Jackson contacted the Victorian business who sold the T-shirt to Kmart, he said they told him that because his website was free to access, they could do what they wanted with his photograph.

"Since I did not have the money to take this further, nothing has come of it yet," Jackson said.

He added that Kmart were of no help either and said it was "not their problem and simply shrugged me off".

Barbara Read, who lives in British Columbia, Canada, said she regularly tracked the unauthorised use of her photos and found them "all over the place".

She warned other photographers that low-resolution images, watermarks and copyright notices did nothing to stop people from using her images. "Folks better expect to lose control of [their photographs] if they post them online," she said.

"There are sophisticated software programs available to upsize small images with excellent results and most copyright notices are easily cloned or cropped out."

Harmony Nicholas of Adelaide has been fighting to stop businesses stealing her photos and putting them on T-shirts. She's had no luck getting compensation and had little success trying to stop those who stole from her.

"We're being screwed left, right and centre purely because we just have our images out there," she said.

Nicholas first found out about her photos being stolen from a friend who in 2010 was on holiday in Brisbane. "She was walking past one of the shops and snapped on her phone a picture of a singlet that was in a window that [had on it my photograph] of model Sabina Kelley colouring in her tattoos with textas," Nicholas said.

Since then Nicholas has discovered about six of her photos on T-shirts and is now reluctant to publish her work online, especially as she lacked the money to pursue legal action.

Peter Coulson of Victoria said he had also found one of his photographs in use on a T-shirt sold by Nena & Pasadena, and others on a giant screen behind American heavy metal band Mötley Crüe, when they performed during their worldwide concerts.

When he contacted Nena & Pasadena in 2011 about the infringing photo they used, he said they offered him $200 to continue to use it on their T-shirts. He refused the offer and requested the company destroy all infringing stock, and they complied.

In a statement provided to Melbourne's Herald Sun in 2011, management for Nena and Pasadena blamed a rogue designer for the mix-up. The company said the design, called "The Night'', would never make it into shops.

Mötley Crüe's infringement was still under investigation, Coulson said.

Other examples of copyright infringement included:

* A Sydney wedding photographer who used another photographer's wedding photos to advertise their services after finding them online. (After a letter and phone call requesting the removal of all of the images, the photographer complied.)

* A couple who dressed up for a costume party and posted the photo on Flickr, then found themselves in a local club's advertising material.

* Book publishers using photos without permission – even using them as cover images.

twitter This reporter is on Facebook: /bengrubb


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