Disappointed in Fstoppers.com: Wholesale Copyright Infringement as a Business Model
Photo ©Frans Lanting/lanting.com
Copyright Can Be a Thorny Issue
especially if you just blatantly don't care about respecting it

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.

For Example...

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...

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.

Fstoppers Responds

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?

My Followup

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.


This section was added a week after initial publication of this article.

In the aftermath of this article, two things became clear: based upon the comments below by Fstopper's founder Lee Morris, they simply had no clue about copyright. This is almost unbelievable for a professional wedding photographer, but if it's the case, it means a complete correction of the problem would be as swift as an understanding of the problem.

And indeed, many subsequent articles came with a “used by permission” note, so I didn't feel the need to followup.

Some articles didn't carry such a note, and on occasion I made contact with the photographers whose work was republished. In one case, it was clear that Fstoppers had not asked permission:

So Fstoppers clearly still has a ways to go, and still expose themselves to staggering liability.

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.

Interesting Contrast

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).

In Summary

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.

Sorry not to have any of my own photos on this post. There's a pretty nice one on my previous post, “Impossible Shot at Kyoto’s Enkoji Temple”, and perhaps some on my blog's photostream.

All 17 comments so far, oldest first...

Burlington, Ontario, Canada 11:00 2013 02 04 outside – overcast -4C

The internet and the all prevailing tone of”I want it, it is now mine, I don’tcare who was the originator”
seems to be normal.

I post very few if any of my images on the internet and if I did, there’d be a big watermark
on the diagonal of the image with a copyright notice.

Theft in all of it’s myriad form is increasingly common,
the Ten Commandments for those so inclined
included one or two comments about such activities.

Perhaps now that the horse has left the barn so to speak
inform others of said situations and allow the blame/fault to lie.

No use getting all bothered for there shall be other simialr situations
in the future. Best let us not be part of the process.

— comment by Bryce Lee on February 5th, 2013 at 1:01am JST (11 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

Thanks for addressing this and getting good information to us all. I have registered complaints with F-Stoppers via their facebook page and their website. I have removed all posts of theirs that I had previously linked. (No sense in me creating traffic for them!) And I have umsubscribed from any future mailings.

It would have been one thing if they said “oops, sorry. We’ll fix that.” But instead they seem content to turn a blind eye.

Finally, thanks as always for your fantastic Lightroom plugins I constantly recommend them to my Lightroom students as being superior in functionality to the built in Publish Services offered by Adobe. Your flickr plugin particularly kicks ass.

— comment by Jeff Hirsch on February 5th, 2013 at 4:28am JST (11 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

You really sound like a ball of fun at parties. I remember having a series of mine published on a few blogs, eventually it got through photo sites and eventually Fstoppers too.

Did any of them ask for my permission? No.

Did I mind? Not really.

Why? One series of mine being featured across the web has gained me such a huge fan base and it doubled my yearly income. I started getting hired for new work and a few opportunities opened up because they saw them there. It was just the catalyst I needed.

So in essence, I would actually like to THANK sites like Fstoppers for featuring my work.

You need to relax. Honestly, it just sounds like you’re crying for attention. If you have a problem, write to them personally so you can get a real answer. Apparently, your lack of trying shows how much of an attention whore you are.

— comment by Jill on February 5th, 2013 at 7:07am JST (11 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

Thanks for the report. Pretty sad!

I also read Petapixel, and very rarely Fstoppers. As a check, I went there today, and their article on the Dodge SuperBowl Ad is very dishonest and absolutely no remorse from the author participating to the comments…

— comment by Luc on February 5th, 2013 at 8:32am JST (11 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

Hey Jeffrey,

We have screwed up many times when it comes to naming the creators of photographs on our site and for that I am sorry. It’s something that we are trying to improve but when you have 30 part time writers and an owner (me) who is trying to run other businesses at the same time, mistakes are made. I’m sure I too have posted things before without proper credit in a rush.

In this case you are 100% right and If I didn’t respond to you fairly before, I am sorry. As we get bigger and bigger the comments get nastier. At times it feels like “us against them” and I feel like in many cases our readers will blow extremely small things out of proportion simply for the sake of attacking us. Hopefully one day Fstoppers will be big enough for us to have an office and full time employees but at this time it’s just 2 wedding photographers from SC and 30 other part time writers helping us try to figure this out as we go.

We screwed up and I promise we are working so that it will not happen again.

I appreciate the apology, but I’m concerned that you talk only about “credit”, as if that is relevant, and that a sentiment of “victim” runs through your reply. As a photographer…. particularly as a wedding photographer (whose livelihood is generally based upon folks respecting their copyright)… I would expect/hope you talk about “permission”, not attribution. Attribution comes into play after you have permission.

I understand the “attack” feeling. I get it on my own small blog here as well (as evident by the “attention whore” comment above, for example).

About running your business, I’m not in your shoes so it may be difficult for me to imagine, but how hard can it be to lay down a rule to your writers: “don’t post a photo you don’t have explicit permission for“? As the attention-whore-commenter above pointed out, many people would be thrilled to be featured on your site (myself included prior to this), so I’m sure that respecting copyright won’t leave you in a bind looking for content. But even if it did, I really don’t see that you have a choice if you want to be respected by your target audience. —Jeffrey

— comment by Lee Morris on February 5th, 2013 at 12:17pm JST (11 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

By the way, Lee, I would be interested to see a post by you on Fstoppers that discusses your policy on copyright (and makes clear, for example, that you understand the difference between attribution and permission)….. —Jeffrey

— comment by Jeffrey Friedl on February 5th, 2013 at 1:16pm JST (11 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

I’m not exactly sure I agree that we shouldn’t post pictures without permission first. Current blog etiquette says that if it is posted on another blog, it’s free game for your blog as long as you credit that original blog. Every major blog follows this rule. I think that is where we got into trouble because many of our writers would credit blogs that used images without attribution. We need to be bigger than that and do the work to find the artists and credit them.

If someone posts a video on Youtube do I need to contact them and ask if I can embed it on my site? I don’t think so, it’s on a public video site. If someone posts their pictures to another public blog, at that point I feel like they want it to be shared.

In the extremely rare occasion that someone asks us to take a post down about them that is getting them traffic and valuable SEO juice we will happily do it but the sad truth is that if you wait for permission for every single post you will never get a post up and every other blog will grab the story first. Most of the time you won’t even get a response. I can guarantee you that even PetaPixel does the exact same thing because they have taken original content that I have made and posted it on their site without asking me, but I want them to. That’s the whole reason I put it online, to share it.

In the last 3 years of Fstoppers I can only remember 1 person that asked us to remove a post about them that we gave proper credit to and it was a photographer who had sold the images to Getty and he feared that it was a breach of contract showing up on another site. Other than that everyone else (who we credit appropriately) has been extremely excited for our press.

— comment by Lee Morris on February 5th, 2013 at 1:27pm JST (11 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

I also notice, Lee, that the infringing articles I referenced in the article are still up on your site. It would not surprise me if all the photographers, if asked, would grant you permission to publish their work, but it would surprise me that permission has been sought and received already. If you’re serious about trying to do better, I’d think that the first step is to remove everything from your site you don’t explicitly know to be allowed. —Jeffrey

(I posted this comment before noticing that Lee had submitted his second comment; I hadn’t read his second comment when I wrote this comment)

— comment by Jeffrey Friedl on February 5th, 2013 at 1:43pm JST (11 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

This article has started a big debate with our writers and we are going through each of the posts above and trying to figure out how they came about them. Most of them are claiming that the found them on other big public blogs. I know that isn’t a good excuse but we are not trying to maliciously go out and steal work. I’ve always assumed we were doing these photographers a huge favor. Who doesn’t want to share their work and climb the ranks on Google? Obviously anyone who you contacted that didn’t want us to post their stuff can contact us at any time and we will gladly pull any post but I feel like we might be punishing other the majority of photographers who actually do appreciate their work being shared if we start pulling every single post that we didn’t ask for permission for.

I understand that you have problems with pictures being used without permission but where do you draw the line. What about one picture? What about a quote? What about a name? What about a video? No website can possibly ask for permission for everything…right?

I’ll make a quick point and then I need to go to bed.
A couple years ago I made “The iPhone Fashion Shoot” a video of a photo series I took with my cell phone. It was a big success and was picked up by a ton of huge sites (way bigger than FS) and I wasn’t contacted by a single one of them for permission but I was thrilled for the press. Honestly I wouldn’t have even responded to them if they did email me because I don’t have time to respond to every email. Here are just a few:

My point is that we have made mistakes in the past that we are trying to fix but for the most part we are doing the exact same thing as every other website out there and I’m not convinced it’s wrong. We are simply trying to share cool and interesting stuff with the photography industry.

My goodness, the ignorance of the law displayed in your replies, Lee, is absolutely jaw dropping. (And you confuse “hosting” with linking/embedding. Folks who referenced your iPhone video (which I saw a couple of weeks ago and loved) almost certainly just referenced YouTube, which actually served up the video. This is very different from making a copy of the image/video and hosting it on your site). —Jeffrey

— comment by Lee Morris on February 5th, 2013 at 2:02pm JST (11 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

Maybe I don’t understand what you are saying but didn’t Gizmodo, the giant tech blog owned by the massive media outlet “Gawker” copy my picture in the very first link?

Are you suggesting if you link to media it makes it ok but the second you host it on your server it’s theft? Wouldn’t that mean if I right click on an image and copy the file extension on a server and then simply embed that image on our site that makes it ok?

Perhaps the links I provided above didn’t give enough good examples but there are literally hundreds of instances of “theft” of those iPhone pictures on the internet but I personally considering them promotion rather than theft.

The one photo copied on the Gizmodo post could, perhaps, be construed as “fair use”… I dunno. It’s a world of difference from the recent articles cited in my blog post.

You then ask if it would it be okay if you copied the URL and reference the photographer’s site (embedded their site’s image into your page)? Personally, I think that would make it completely okay because it’s the original photographer who is serving up new copies… your site never touches the pixels. This leaves control completely in the photographer’s hands, to allow this to be done or not. However, my personal opinion does not suffice to establish copyright case-law precedent, and I recall something on Photo Attorney years ago that embedded-linking was considered “copying”. I don’t see how this can trump free-speech (by encoding the address of the original photo in your site, you’re only talking about the photo, and not actually ever touching it… all touching is between your reader and the photographer’s server. But again, it’s not my opinion that you have to be aware of, it’s the intersection of the law and your personal ethics.

I understand that you consider it promotion, and I understand that many people whose works appear on your site would feel the same way. None of that is even remotely relevant for copyright law. Do you want me to “promote” your 14-hour Wedding Video by placing a copy on my site for free download? Maybe yes, maybe no, but it’s not my place to make that decision, it’s yours.

As I said in my writeup, this kind of stuff happens all the time, but I expect more from a site like yours, for it to respect basic copyright. Now I’m all the more stunned to find out that you simply have no clue what copyright is. Surreal. —Jeffrey

— comment by Lee Morris on February 5th, 2013 at 2:30pm JST (11 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

One final thing that was bothering me. Your “paraphrase” of my comment was a bit harsh I think: “As I recall, Lee more or less said “Gee, he removed the comments… can’t you just let it go?””

My actual comment was “Thomas made a mistake in that he didn’t credit the artists and then he went too far in his response to you. We get attacked on a daily basis and it’s easy to “fight back.” We are working to change things so that this doesn’t happen again. I apologize on behalf of my writer. Now please let it go.”

My “let it go” comment was directed at the fact that you it appeared to me you were simply trying to cause a fight rather than make a valid point.

Thanks for the update… since the page had been removed from your site (why?), I had to go by my memory of the gist. You weren’t actually responding to me with that comment, though, were you? I wouldn’t have complained about attribution, though a lot of people certainly did. —Jeffrey

— comment by Lee Morris on February 5th, 2013 at 2:53pm JST (11 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

This is a very valid issue and it’s troubling how flippantly so many people treat it.

This subject reminded me of a blog post I read coming from the other side of the issue. Someone who used a photo, without permission, never intending harm but never learning the rules – and paid the price for it. Article here – A lot of the comments are very informative, too. I especially like Rissa’s comment regarding the “exposure” justification. ” So the next time you go to the mechanic try that with them. Or when you ask your boss for a paycheck and you are told, but you got great experience from doing the work. How does that make you feel? ”

And it’s not very difficult to track the origin of a lot of photos. Try images.google.com

Ignorance isn’t an excuse and excuses won’t save the offending site if the copyright holder decides to pursue legal action. And just because one site or person appears to be getting away with it, doesn’t justify anyone else. And does no one ever watch/read the news? Companies are always instituting policies once someone sues them for lazily breaking the law. So just because Joe-schmoe is getting away with it today doesn’t mean he will tomorrow. It’s happened before and will happen again.

— comment by LadySaotome on February 6th, 2013 at 2:43pm JST (11 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

Lee, so where is an authoritative statement of “current blog etiquette” ? Do you think it would tromp current US copyright law ? If you include a single image you may possibly evoke “fair use”, but a whole portfolio ?

— comment by QT Luong on February 7th, 2013 at 8:00am JST (11 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

Lee, wouldn’t you get even more respect and (literally) credibility in the world of photographers if you would take care of topics like “copyrights”, “permission”, “credits”… stuff like that. Just a thought.

— comment by Stefan on February 8th, 2013 at 2:29am JST (11 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

For a long time, all that a working photographer had was copyright to guarantee intellectual property value and ability to make a living. Since the rise of digital and thus the Internet and blogging, this lighthearted careless thinking and the “getting away with it” mentality is causing such a dilution in the value of professional photography, and may just be the reason our industry is turning to shit. The days of working purposefully to get work published are near gone in some genres.

— comment by Andy on February 11th, 2013 at 12:13am JST (11 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

Ok, good. It’s not just me.

I’ve noticed the same blatant and unapologetic disregard for copyright and respect of intellectual property by Fstoppers’ “writers”, both on their blog and Facebook page. As i commented on an offending post, it’s piracy, plain and simple – wholesale copying for profit – not fair use reference for the purpose of discussion or news

Seriously! This is flat-out plagiarism, Chris Lambeth. Not a single movie title or caption to explain the images in this post = lazy lazy theft. Piracy.
And i see it way too often here on Fstoppers. You’d think a group of supposed creative professionals would have some conviction about using others’ work and giving credit, and setting a proper example for others in the creative industries you serve.


To make it worse, they try to make me look like a fool with their back-door attempts to clean up their mistakes after the fact. This image showing the history of Photoshop toolbars was posted to the Fstoppers Facebook page on March 21. Already suspicious of their copying practices, i did a simple image search and found the image was created and shared by DesignModo many months prior, and i called them out on the lack of attribution:

Not cool, passing this image as your own, Fstoppers and Pratik Naik, or at the least not giving credit to who created it. Call it “borrowing” or “innocent ignorance”, but it’s generating traffic and buzz for you guys, none of which is going to the content creator. When others share your post, it just perpetuates this lack of attribution.

That image had been shared from Fstoppers staff writer Pratik Naik’s Facebook page, so the caption came from that page:
And now after reading this post, i looked up some of those old posts and noticed that the caption was edited to include a link, after which Fstoppers responded to me as if i had made the mistake. Shameful.

Here’s another post plagiarized by staff writer David Strauss from Popular Mechanics back in December:

More irony: a post about tracking down images to find when your work may be used without your permission:

[sorry for all the image links, it looks like you don’t allow image embedding]

— comment by Jeremiah Zabal on June 7th, 2013 at 3:49am JST (11 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

Has this improved since the article was written? I was not aware that PetaPixel so much more respectful to photographers work compared to fstoppers. I always considered fstoppers as the place to.

After this article, FStoppers seemed to have blocked my home IP from accessing their site, so I don’t know. Perhaps pick a random recent article on their site and contact the relevant photographers to ask. —Jeffrey

— comment by Yaneck WASIO on April 4th, 2017 at 4:30pm JST (7 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink
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