The more I learn about copyrights, social media, and unorthodox business practices, the more I learn how scummy BuzzFeed’s business model is. They occasionally put together interesting, time-killing lists that many people share and talk about, but it turns out that’s often at the expense of copyright holders. I discovered a couple weeks ago that BuzzFeed lifted one of my pictures from Flickr – a place where none of my photos are downloadable, which means they had to screen grab the picture, then upload it to BuzzFeed’s server and to their Twitter page. I already have a decent concept of intellectual property/copyright laws and decided to dig a little deeper into the company’s business practices. What I discovered is that multiple copyright infringement lawsuits have been filed against BuzzFeed.

That company’s stance has generally been that they can grab photos from any source and, by creating a list of “Home Organization Hacks” (or whatever list it may be), the use of the lifted photo as part of a group of lifted photos is “transformative.” By that, they seem to be convincing themselves they are creating a new, unique work that serves the greater good of the world. But would people even be as interested without images that supplement the text? Sometimes it’s not even about the text. How about all of those collections of “12 Amazing Images You Have to See” or “The 10 Best Album Covers”? In those cases, the posts couldn’t even exist based on descriptions alone. That’s because all of those images, even the supplemental ones, are essential in achieving the goal – providing a visual experience that leads to more page clicks.

BuzzFeed’s CEO has even said, “I would love if every image contained some secret metadata and a way to license that image…” Well, my files on Flickr DO include metadata, and that information isn’t retained when you screenshot one of my images because you don’t see a download link. There is no download link as a deterrent. I fully know it doesn’t stop theft, but you also aren’t going to come away with the full-res photo. I’ll provide that to you for a fee. And I obviously have the resources to track down unauthorized use, .

While on the topic, I license photos all the time for work. Once you establish a relationship with a photo provider, it’s an easy process. Depending on the photo, a single one is usually hundreds of dollars for worldwide use but can sometimes cost thousands. In using any photo, I have to get approval from lawyers and a license agreement has to get signed. We don’t even think about pulling any random images from who-knows-where and using them without permission because we would get sued… rightly so because we respect the rights of those who create intellectual property.

So alas, believing in the adage “You use it, you bought it,” I’ve sent an invoice to BuzzFeed. This is me being nice – seeking rightful compensation, rather than going to court. I’m hoping the result is simple enough because I can be a real pain in the ass when the boxing gloves come off.

Bottom line – Don’t enable BuzzFeed. Aside from the deals they officially broker with content providers that have armies of lawyers (i.e. Reuters, Getty, AP), evidence suggests the other part of their business model comes from snagging whatever photos they can quickly/conveniently find and pretend they are in the public domain. They aren’t, and such a business model can’t and shouldn’t be sustainable.

I’m fighting an ongoing battle against copyright infringement. It’s sometimes a tricky subject – which battles to pick – and sometimes the choice is completely obvious. I host a lot of photos on my Flickr account. I try to only post my best and most unique photos, and I’ve discovered people out there exploiting my work.

My “better half” asked “Why don’t you just put a watermark on your photos?” In the photo world, that’s always a dilemma. A clear, unobstructed photo looks, well, clear and unobstructed. It’s most aesthetic. It just looks good and, if anyone wanted to license a photo, I wouldn’t have to look through my 100+ GB archive of photos from my domestic and international trips. I could just grab the full res. image I uploaded to the server and provide it to the licensee.

In an attempt to protect myself, and my property, I’ve added to every Flickr post: “Please don’t use this image on websites, blogs, or other media without my explicit permission. © All rights reserved.” It’s starting to seem that’s insufficient. People must think they can host photos of their public structures (and that it doesn’t void my rights) or photos as a not-for-profit use on a blog. They’re wrong.

The worst and most blatant infringement I’ve seen so far was a company offering one of my images for sale on a coffee mug. That’s insane and to think there are no consequences…. wow.

Here’s the tally so far (and don’t worry, I’m not going to link to weird sites that might blow up the internet):

$20 Bills
my post: https://www.flickr.com/photos/53135611@N08/5992643526/
not my post: https://twitter.com/BuzzFeed/status/421021189826674688

Santa Barbara Mission
my post: https://www.flickr.com/photos/53135611@N08/6031391488/
not my post: https://plus.google.com/113662442292147469372/photos/photo/5727270185275512002?pid=5727270185275512002&oid=113662442292147469372

Old Lemon-Monroe High School – Monroe, Ohio
my post: https://www.flickr.com/photos/53135611@N08/7039953453/
not my post: (removed after sending a “cease and desist” notice) http://kamgraphics.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Lemon-Monroe-2012.jpg

Old Lemon-Monroe High School – Monroe, Ohio (again)
my post: https://www.flickr.com/photos/53135611@N08/7039953453/
not my post: http://www.monroelocalschools.com/popup-news.cfm?id=414

In-N-Out Burger sign
my post: https://www.flickr.com/photos/53135611@N08/6115300870/
not my post: http://www.socalcarmeetsforum.com/viewimage.forum?u=https%3A%2F%2Fc1.staticflickr.com%2F7%2F6089%2F6115300870_eb8246246d_z.jpg

This is a fair warning to the infringers of the world: Do your research. It’s gonna get easier, not tougher, to track down stolen content. I’m protecting myself, and the hammer of justice soon will be coming down with more force and more frequently.

If you think it’s okay to use photos in an unauthorized fashion, read this:

“The $8,000 Mistake That All Bloggers Should Beware”
http://www.contentfac.com/copyright-infringement-penalties-are-scary/

On a songwriters’ forum, one poster was asking if it’s safe to post original songs to Youtube that don’t yet have a copyright (meaning registered with the U.S. Copyright Office). Here is one response:

“just have a copy of the song with an earlier date. I think that would be enough.”

Good thing it’s prefaced with “I think” because that doesn’t work. You can adjust your computer so it displays any time and day you choose. Consequently, creating a copy of any digital file with a time/date stamp isn’t going to help when it comes to making a copyright claim.

Additionally, the age-old “poor man’s copyright” technique doesn’t hold up, either. We did this a few times, many years ago, in one of the rock bands I played in: slide a CD with your original music on it into an envelope and mail it to yourself. The envelope shows the day the stamp was cancelled, so the government’s involvement makes it official, right? NO! Envelopes can be tampered with. Heck, you could probably tuck in the flap on the envelope (so as to not seal it), send it through mail that way, AND THEN plop a CD in there at any later date… or tape down the flap, send the CD, and retape it later when you’ve got a disc with more songs (or whatever) on it. Point being, the “poor man’s copyright” will, unfortunately, do nothing for you in a bind.

What you can and should do is this: pony up the $35 registration fee and make it official. Admittedly, when I first registered, I was concerned about how much it would cost. Would I have to register all my songs individually or what? Generally speaking, and be sure to read the descriptions on the Copyright Office’s website before taking this at face value: You can clump all your demos together (if the songwriters are the same on all of them) and use Form PA (Performing Arts). That registration will protest the gist of the song, melody, and words. For a completed album or final song mix, use Form SR (Sound Recording). Remember, though, bundle what songs you can together so you aren’t continually paying the $35 fee.

Registering your work can eat up a fair amount of time, and money, as mentioned. But if you’re serious about your artistic work and the time and effort put into it, you need to make sure it’s protected.

Lastly, it’s important to note that a copyright happens automatically WHEN YOU CREATE A WORK. But proving that creation is key. Whether you’ve registered or not, put one of these little doodads next to your work if you’re concerned someone might try to rip you off – ©

Here is where you can register your work (here in the U.S.) and find info that’s, you know, not on a forums or a blog! – http://www.copyright.gov