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Categorized | Articles, Don Komarechka

Pushing Limits – Pushing Back: Treating Images with Respect in the Digital Era (full story)

Story and photography by Don Komarechka

I want to use my column in this issue to bring up an important matter that affects all photographers, even if you don’t know it: image theft. Copyright infringement in the digital era is rampant and it has a significant impact on photographers, especially those who depend on their images for their livelihood. If you don’t make money from your photos, wouldn’t you love to have someone contact you to license an image? There’s a good chance that your image will simply be used without your permission, attribution or compensation instead. The worst part is that you’ll likely never know — unless you look for it.


The images used in this article are my most stolen images of all time. Many of them are iconic and have a universal appeal, which is why they are so commonly misappropriated. I’ve talked to many people who saw my work before they met me and had no idea I was the creator of the image they recognized in a presentation.

Every time you browse Facebook, Twitter and many other social media platforms, you’ll undoubtedly see someone sharing an image that has “gone viral,” disassociated from the original artist or photographer that created the work. Businesses and corporations are just as bad, using images found online for commercial purposes without the proper permissions, and this copyright infringement has to stop. Without naming anyone in particular, I’m aware of some companies that wilfully reproduce images without the proper permissions because it’s more cost effective to settle a few copyright issues than to seek out legitimate licenses to use the work. This happens to me on a regular basis, and I’d like to share how I push back against this.

©Don Komarechka
Maple Leaf Flag — the most infringed upon image in my collection

The sad truth is that many people will never discover their images are being used without their permission, but thankfully searching for your work online is an easy and straightforward process. Major search engines like Google and Bing allow you to upload an image as a search term. In the case of a Google Images search, there’s a little camera icon that, once clicked, gives you the option to upload an image or provide a URL where the image exists online, and Google will then show you every website where it has found your image. This doesn’t just match exact copies, but different sizes, crops and alterations to your photograph will also show up. Dedicated search engines like TinEye were designed from the ground up for people to locate their images online, and it’s also free to use. If you have images that have been popular on social media, these would be the first images to search for.

As a photographer today, you likely have too many images that could potentially be misappropriated to search one by one. I use this technique for my most commonly infringed images, but for larger collections of work I depend on ImageRights International, which scours the Internet with an entire database of my images — for a fee. ImageRights is also the platform I use for all commercial international copyright infringements that I discover, because once you find someone using your work without permission, what’s the next step?

©Don Komarechka
Fisheye Toronto — the second most infringed upon image in my collection

I need to state that I am not a lawyer and have a limited knowledge of the legal system, beyond reading the Copyright Act of Canada numerous times as it pertains to photography. For legal advice, contact a lawyer.

If you find a personal or social media infringement, there’s little you can do other than get the image removed. Most social media and blogging platforms have a copyright violation policy and a simple form to fill out — a quick web search will find the right page. Failing that, most hosting companies will comply with a DMCA takedown notice if they’re based in the United States (and while not obliged to, many Canadian hosting companies will also respond in your favour). You could simply try talking to the person that violated your copyright and put it politely that they don’t have such permission… but I’ve had people explode on me and become verbally aggressive towards defending their actions. This is the minority of cases, but I’d rather avoid it and sleep better at night.

©Don Komarechka
Try — you guessed it, the third most infringed upon image in my collection

Commercial infringements are likely to be picked up by ImageRights or a lawyer if there is sufficient contact information. I use a local lawyer for Canadian cases, but regardless of where in the world the infringement happens, my legal representation is based on contingencies: I don’t pay a penny for the work, but I share a percentage of the settlement. I wouldn’t be able to defend myself otherwise.

Multinational corporations have stolen my images, and I’ve been paid for it because I pushed back. Media outlets, real estate agencies and construction companies have all used my work without permission. By pushing back, you not only defend your work, but you start to change the public perception. Too many people think, “If it’s on the Internet, it must be free.” Unlike a stolen song or movie where there’s admiration of the artists or actors involved, a photograph separated from your name gives you zero recognition.

©Don Komarechka
Glowing City — the fourth most infringed upon image in my collection.

Fight the good fight. The more photographers that defend their work, the better it will get for all of us.

You may notice that I didn’t mention registration of your copyright in this article. You own the copyright to your image the second you take the picture and it doesn’t need to be registered. If a case goes to court, you’ll have the ability to claim more than “actual damages” if you registered the copyright, but in Canada it costs $50 per image. It’s easier to register your copyright of bulk photos in other countries like the United States, which will help protect you south of the border.

To read more of this issue please pick up a copy of the Fall/Winter 2017 issue or to never miss an issue SUBSCRIBE NOW!

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