Be Careful What You Publish to an Online Photo Sharing Site

A few days back a conversation was going on in Flickr Central about how your Flickr photos might be used outside of Flickr. Flickr Central is one of the primary areas on Flickr where people talk about anything having to do with Flickr. The conversation revolved around a recent exhibit put up by the Pace/McGill Gallery in New York City that was pulling self portrait photos from the ever growing flickr library of images without first informing people.

Because the images used by Pace/McGill were Creative Commons licensed, the thought went, they were fair game for the gallery to remix into their own art installment. Others disagreed saying that since many of the Creative Commons licensed images were for non commercial use only and that the gallery was a commercial venture that their license had been violated. And they went looking to Flickr to do something about this.

In all of this conversation it made me think about how the images that we may host on public photo sharing sites might be used in ways that we don’t want them to be and this brings us to the story of Irina Souiki. Irina Souiki is one of those influential Flickr users. She’s a super photographer, a kind and generous person and a former admin at one of the most popular groups on Flickr, Utata, a group built mostly around fine art photography for fine art photography types (myself included).

Yesterday Irina emailed me regarding a problem she was having with one of her images. She was upset — very upset. It would seem that yesterday one of the largest Romanian newspapers Buna Ziua Ardeal (BZA) has published a photo of Irina as a little girl, (a photo that Irina had previously published to Flickr and her blog, that you can see here on her flickrstream), on the front page of their paper. The photo accompanies a story about children hired by the Securitate (former Romanian secret police). We don’t know where the newspaper got the image (there is no attribution), but it is certainly likely that they got it from Irina’s photostream or blog. Although she had uploaded this photo to the internet she never expected in her wildest dreams that it would be used in this context.

Although Irina has long since left Romania she still has family there who will probably see this photo of her in that political context on the front page of the newspaper and this is upsetting. Unfortunately there may not be much Irina can do about the use in question in this case. Although she uploaded the photo originally, because she is the subject in the photo and not the photographer she doesn’t actually own copyright. Also given that the use is editorial (newspaper) vs. commercial the issue is complicated. Further, the use in this case would fall under Romanian law most likely, a murky area I’m sure, and without spending a ton of money there may not be much Irina can do to stop this use. And of course although her image is still online, in the case of the printed newspaper that’s gone out to the public there is most likely no way to get these recalled.

So this case brings up a number of important points. The first point is that do not assume that just because images that you upload to the internet are CC licensed, (heck, even if they are “all rights reserved” licensed) that they might not be used in ways that you don’t want them used.

Do you know that a hate group could take one of your images from the internet and publish it to their non-profit website without your permission when it’s CC licensed? How would you feel if one of your images showed up as the header on a website promoting something you deplore?

All of us need to realize that even though 99.9% of the time we will probably be fine with how others use our images that there is always this risk. In the case of CC images used by non profits there is really nothing you can do about it, and even when CC images are used commercially or without attribution per their license, there still is likely nothing you can do about it because lawsuits are expensive and likely real financial damages are hard to prove.

Another ethical consideration in all of this has to do with the ethics of photographing children and the use that may take place with those images later. Although I had more people supporting me than condemning me for a recent article questioning the ethics of photographer Jill Greenberg, this case with Irina does bring out the point that children have little control over themselves as subjects in photographs and that those photographs may indeed come back to hurt them in other ways. In Greenberg’s case we just don’t know how her photos of crying emotionally hurt children might affect them later on in life. Similarly, a shot of Irina as a child has come back to hurt her. Although Irina probably originally shared her photos within the context of it being a cute shot of her as a kid in what she thought was a safe context of flickr and her blog, a newspaper has instead twisted her image and used it for a charged political story.

My own personal opinion is that the newspaper should have sought Irina’s approval before using her childhood image in such a politically charged way. They did not do this. And while I would caution against retaliation against the paper over this, I wonder if anything can actually be done at this point to help Irina. Here is the article on the front page in question. The article mostly talks about the Securitate recruiting children as young as 12 years old to work as informers to report on their classmates, dorm colleagues, their parents, jokes, relations of parents with foreign citizens and on families listening to radio from abroad.

Irina has been given the address of a law firm in the Balkans and is going to try and contact them. She is seeking legal counsel and would hope to get this situation addressed in a legal way if possible. Hopefully some of you might have some better suggestions on how she might deal with this problem.

6 Replies to “Be Careful What You Publish to an Online Photo Sharing Site”

  1. The best thing you can do to protect yourself in the US, short of not posting your images online at all, is to register your copyright. While you own the copyright on images you take, registering your images allows you to sue for damages – without the registration you won’t find a lawyer to take your case.

    The cost of registration has recently gone up from $30 to $45, but for unpublished images you can register as many as you want from a single year by just putting low res jpegs on a CD.

    The Editorial Photographers website has a great resource on copyright:

  2. Hate groups? I hardly think Jill Greenberg has use for another photographer’s output.

  3. Poor Irina, I hope she will be able to resolve this somehow, though the damage is already done. It’s particularly bad because the photo in question is so personal.

  4. Interesting that the image at the top and center of the article (I assume that’s where it’s supposed to be) is a broken link right now… I hope that means she’s made some headway. That’s heinous.

  5. It’s unfortunate that you link this example which is an important issue to that of Jill Greenburg. “In Greenberg’s case we just don’t know how her photos of crying emotionally hurt children might affect them later on in life.” GIve me a break, if anything those kids will get their first acting gig, or get a copy of the photo from the photographer and sell it later for a large sum of money.

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