I used to enjoy reading about cool photography-related things on Fstoppers.com, but that was before I realized that their business model is apparently built on systematic wholesale copyright violation. They regularly publish large numbers of copyrighted photos without permission from the photographer. They just take what they want to pad their site, building their user base and, presumably, their revenues.
When this issue surfaced a couple of weeks ago with one article filled with copyright violations (more on that later), I was shocked that a photography site as respected as Fstoppers could allow such a slip, but sad research has shown that it was not a slip, but rather, a pattern. Recent examples include...
“Long Exposures Of Couples Sleeping Tell An Interesting Story”
by Fstopper's staff writer Pratik Naik, filled with copyrighted photos by Paul Schneggenburger, all used without permission.
How do I know Fstoppers had no permission to publish these photos? Unlike Fstoppers, I contacted Paul.
“Review of Brief Encounters, Gregory Crewdson Documentary”
by Fstopper's staff writer Nick Fancher, filled with copyrighted photos by Gregory Crewdson, all used without permission.
How do I know Fstoppers had no permission to publish these photos? Unlike Fstoppers, I contacted Gregory's agent..
“Brilliantly Minimalistic Food Still Lifes”
by Fstopper's staff writer Corey Melton. It has one short paragraph of text followed by a bunch of copyrighted photos by Florent Tanet, all used without permission.
How do I know Fstoppers had no permission to publish these photos? Unlike Fstoppers, I contacted Florent.
“The Dying Breath of a Snowflake”
by Fstopper's staff writer David Bickley. It's a couple of short paragraphs followed by a bunch of copyrighted photos by Андрей Осокин (Andrew Osokin), all used without permission.
How do I know Fstoppers had no permission to publish these photos? Unlike Fstoppers, I contacted Andrew.
“The Surreal Conceptual Photography Of 19 Year Old Taylor Marie McCormick”
by Fstopper's staff writer Pratik Naik, again filled with copyright photos (this time by Taylor McCormick, and again all used without permission).
How do I know Fstoppers had no permission to publish these photos? Unlike Fstoppers, I contacted Marie.
“Amazing Surreal Work from Robert & Shana ParkeHarrison”
by Fstopper's staff writer Chris Knight, filled with copyrighted photos by Robert and Shana ParkeHerrison, all used without permission.
How do I know Fstoppers had no permission to publish these photos? Unlike Fstoppers, I contacted Robert and Shana.
How do I know Fstoppers had no permission to publish these photos? Unlike Fstoppers, I contacted Marc.
That last bit of deliberate infringement by Thomas Ingersoll is perhaps most telling that systematic copyright infringement is institutionalized in Fstopper's business model, because it follows an article by him two weeks ago, of the most stunningly-obvious copyright violations, that brought all this to light...
Two Weeks Ago...
In mid January, Fstopper's staff writer Thomas Ingersoll published an article titled “25 Mind Blowing Landscapes From Around The World” that included some really famous photos (such as the one above) that were almost certainly published without permission. The article has since been removed, presumably because of the firestorm of “Fstoppers, come on, really!?” comments and any number of DCMA takedown notices, but you can get a good sense of what it was because it seems to have essentially plagiarized this web page (which itself almost certainly has no permission to publish the photos, either), though perhaps the latter is a copy of the former... hard to know. Oddly, the Fstopper's version omitted any mention of the photographer's names.... it had only the photos and the photo locations.
The copyright violations were so stunningly plentiful and obvious (and so stunning to be from a seemingly-clueful photography site like Fstoppers) that I left what turns out to have been the first comment on the article, suggesting that the title should be changed to “25 Mind Blowing Copyright Violations by Fstoppers”.
Many similar comments followed, some also complaining about the lack of photographer credits. That's tangential, though, because “attribution” is certainly no substitute for “permission”. It's permission you need: no permission means no publish, and Fstoppers certainly knows this.
It was all quite obvious, but to be sure, I did ask one of the photographers whose work appeared, Frans Lanting, whether he had given permission for Fstoppers to publish his most-abackmazing Namibia Thorn Trees shot from the June 2011 issue of National Geographic (seen above... that's a photo of dead thorn trees against a backdrop of a sun-lit dune). No, he had not, was the reply. I hadn't even been the first to give them a heads up.
His office, I was told, had sent a take-down notice, but the image remained. I'm not a lawyer, but I believe that now makes the infringement “willful”, triggering a change in penalty (should Lanting wish to pursue it) from “not less than $200” to “$150,000”. Oops.
Fstopper's response? I thought that I knew and respected the site and the folks behind it, so I expected that the article would quickly be replaced with an apologetic note, perhaps citing a lapse of judgment by an inexperienced staff writer, along with a promise that it would not happen again. But wow, I couldn't have been more wrong.
Rather, Thomas Ingersoll (the article's “author”) let loose with a string of virulent replies that would have been considered immature for a 13 year old, perhaps the least adolescent of which was his reply to my comment about the title change, along the lines of “Uh, yeah, I'll get right on making that change for you.” The thrust of his defense, though, was simply that he couldn't be bothered tracking down the copyright owners.
Another response from Fstoppers was the occasional update of the article to include some names of the photographers whose work was being infringed (again, as if attribution somehow mattered in this respect).
At least one photographer whose work was published left a series of comments saying that he had certainly not given permission. Yet his photo, and all the photos, remained.
Another Fstoppers response was the eventual deletion of all the adolescent responses by the author, Thomas Ingersoll. They just disappeared from the comment thread.
Fstoppers Founder Lee Morris Responds
A number of commenters voiced the same question that had begun ringing in my head: where was the adult supervision here? When would one of the founders of Fstoppers (Patrick Hall, or the charismatic and prior-to-this-undeniably-cool Lee Morris) step in to make things right?
Finally, many hours after it all started, I noticed a lone comment by Lee Morris, responding not to the copyright issue, but to someone complaining about the immature replies (and subsequent immature deletion) by staff writer Thomas Ingersoll. As I recall, Lee more or less said “Gee, he removed the comments... can't you just let it go?”
(Update: my memory of Lee's comment was imperfect; Lee Morris himself chimed in with the actual quote, here.)
And that was it. His response to the overwhelming copyright violations by his company was.... silence. Until that moment I thought it was just one staff writer without integrity, but now it seemed more than apparent that it was company policy. In that moment my respect for Lee Morris and Fstoppers vanished.
The Immediate Aftermath
The site soon went offline for two days, apparently due to an unrelated virus or hacking or something. When they came back online, the “Mind-Blowing Landscapes” article was gone without a trace, and no mention made of it. No apology. No excuses like these. Nothing.
And to top it off, this delicious bit of irony: on the day their site came back up, Lee Morris himself published not an apology, but an unrelated article titled “This Guy Stole Photography From The Wrong Person... Me”, about someone that not only had used Lee's own photos without permission, but had also put his own name to them.
In the article, Lee talks about how he took the fauxtographer to task for stealing his photos, and ends with "the moral of the story is, don’t steal other photographers’ work and claim that it is your own, especially mine. You’ll never get away with it.".
Apparently it's okay to steal photos, so long as you don't claim that they're yours?
I was dismayed by Fstoppers copyright violations and wondered how consistently they were doing it, so I contacted the occasional photographer whose works were being published on Fstoppers, asking whether they had given permission.
I got a number of “No, I've never heard of this site” responses. Eventually I did get a few “yes, I gave them permission” responses, so Fstoppers does at least know how to do it correctly, even if they don't normally do so.
Some of the photographers responded to me with laments about how common this kind of thing is, and that they've given up being bothered about it. I understand this and mostly feel the same way myself. (My own photos are taken and used all over, though now it's increasingly legal because I now release many of them with a generous Creative Commons license.)
I just expect so much better from a for-photographers by-photographers site like Fstoppers.
And in most cases, all Fstoppers had to do was ask. Many photographers are thrilled to share their work; they retain copyright so that they retain control, but often readily give permission in cases like this. And if they do say no, well, no means no.
How Would Fstoppers Feel...?
Fstoppers and Lee Morris are the ones who worked with the amazing Peter Hurley on a how-to video on portraiture. It's Peter who inspired me to practice portraiture, and I seriously consider spending the $300 for the four-hour video based on the quality of Fstopper's free trailer. I wonder whether Fstoppers would mind if others violated the video copyright in the same way Fstoppers systematically violates photo copyright? I wonder what Peter Hurley thinks of Fstoppers doing this.
PetaPixel: Alternative to Fstoppers
Another site I've long read is PetaPixel. There's a lot of back-and-forth cannibalism among these news-aggregation sites, so you'll often see the same subject on both, but in PetaPixel's case, you'll find articles end with something like “Photographs by so-and-so and used with permission”. For example, as I write this, the most recent article on PetaPixel is PetaPixel's article covering the same photos cited in the first infringing Fstoppers article mentioned at the top of my post. The difference is that PetaPixel sought and was granted permission to reproduce the photos; Fstoppers just took them.
Last summer I had my own little copyright issue with PetaPixel, and the difference between how PetaPixel responded then and how Fstoppers responded here is stark. Back last summer, confusion in mails between PetaPixel and some kid on Reddit who had used one of my photos lead PetaPixel to believe that the kid was me, and that “his” use of my photo was me using my own photo, so they posted his article with my photo and my byline. It made for a surreal story, to say the least.
PetaPixel fixed it as soon as it was brought to their attention (strike 1 for Fstoppers), they apologized profusely (strike 2 for Fstoppers), and most importantly, it was an honest mistake (strike 3 for Fstoppers).
So very disappointed in Fstoppers. Sure, it happens all around the web, all the time...photos get copied and republished without permission. Few seem to mind much when it's the occasional one-off “borrow”, and often that falls under “fair use” anyway, but Fstoppers goes far beyond any of that into systematic wholesale copyright violation.
As best I can tell, it's the basis of their business model. It seems risky to me (as I noted, each violation can garner a $150,000 penalty), but perhaps it's a calculated risk: perhaps it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
But maybe I'm wrong about everything. Maybe I have no clue about “fair use” for a commercial site like Fstoppers. I'd love to be wrong, especially considering how much I wanted to have a beer with Lee Morris and Peter Hurley. But it doesn't look good.
Frans Lanting's Thorn Trees photo is used with kind permission. I originally published this article without the photo, having requested permission but not yet received it. I certainly didn't expect to actually receive permission, so I'm quite pleased! Lanting's office was not happy with Fstoppers' “egregious” (their word) infringement, but I should be clear that Lanting's photo here does not constitute an endorsement of this post.