Interview with Ted VanCleave, Professional Photographer and Co-Founder of ImageRights International, Inc.

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As a pro photographer, you understand the benefits of using the Internet as a promotional tool. Explain the conflict between cost effective promotion online and risk of image theft. Does one outweigh the other?

I’ve seen instances where people have great photos or ideas and they are so paranoid that someone will steal them that they never show them to anyone. As a result, nothing happens. I prefer to show my images online, on my website and through the stock agency that represents me.  As a result, 90% of my photographic art print sales come from my website.  If I didn’t show my images online, I wouldn’t have the income that these sales generate.   But it’s important to take precautions.  I tend to put a small, unobtrusive watermark with my web site address on each image.  Of course if you are selling via a stock agency, and my images are available via Gallery Stock, then you cannot put your own watermark on the image and you have abide by the policy of the stock agency for images that you allow them to rep and display.

What is it about the Internet that makes people think intellectual property can be taken, used and shared without a cost?

I’m not sure I have the answer to this question, but there are several factors that have contributed to this mind set.   A large portion of the information on the internet is free to view, including images.  Early on, in the late 90s, I think most people who used Napster or other music file sharing sites knew it was illegal to download music and share it with everyone in the world who had a computer and internet access.  Stealing music had an underground pirate movement feel to it and some people reveled in beating the system and getting free music.  As a new generation came along, I think they saw tons of file sharing sites and just felt it was free to take and if it wasn’t, oh well, everyone else is doing it.   Then it seems like the corporate world even dove into the abyss, and now many businesses feel it’s a good business policy to steal an image and use it until they get caught. It saves them money instead of buying the image in the first place.  Sadly, this mind set has now infected large segments of the business world.

In an article you wrote for Fortune.com about IP theft online, someone left a comment  asking why you think your photographs are “SO SPECIAL that people should reimburse you.” They continue to state that you should just stop whining and take your photos off the web completely. How do you respond to someone with this point of view?

People who respond so negatively are unlikely candidates for being better informed and ultimately agreeing that using images without authorization is stealing.  For people of that mind set, I think the photography industry will have to follow the path of the music industry where serious lawsuits against individuals for several thousand dollars per illegal download made national news and as a result, many people understand that there is a real hard dollar cost for music theft.

Do you think people like the one who left the snarky comment will ever be willing to pay for online image use?

Willing? No.  Forced to pay if they are caught?  Yes.

Many, if not most, people using pictures they find on the Internet might not realize they have to pay for use. Whose job is it to educate the public about intellectual property rights online?

I think all of us in the photography industry have an obligation to help inform the uninformed.  There are many great organizations that represent photographers, like the APA, and they have ongoing educational seminars and areas within their website that help educate about copyrights, the law and image theft.  Unfortunately I think it will take large settlements from copyright lawsuits to get the public-at-larges’ attention.  I highly encourage every photographer to register their images with the US Copyright Office.  Images registered with the copyright office have additional protections such as recoverable attorney fees and statutory damages, which can add up to tens of thousands of dollars or more in recourse.

The movie industry is taking the same route as the music industry did five years ago, preventing illegal downloading. Do you see the photography industry following a similar pattern as the music industry and gaining the same respect among the public?

The movie and music industries have spent millions of dollars developing anti-piracy encryption for their assets and they have managed to slow down piracy in countries that respect and uphold copyright protections.  I think the challenge is even greater for photographers.  While there are ways to prevent right click copying of images from your website, there are still many obstacles a photographer faces protecting his or her images.  For instance, if you sell your work via a stock agency or your image is a popular news photo, once it’s been sold anyone can steal it from the licensed user.  If you have a popular image that is being sold hundreds of times, you have a copyright nightmare scenario.

My images have been stolen many times and used without authorization.  That’s why we started ImageRights.com;  to search for unauthorized image use and recover lost revenue. In the past, you could only use Tineye or Google images but they are very limited in how they can be used. Our system scans 80 million web pages a month, looking for unauthorized use of photographers images.

VanCleave is co-founder and executive vice president of ImageRights International, Inc. which uses search and image-recognition technology to help rights holders act on unlicensed use of their works. He also is a national award-winning artist & photographer.

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