Raise your hand if you have heard one of these statements before:
“The photos on my website aren’t large enough for print quality.”
“I am not concerned about web theft, only if someone steals for print.”
“I don’t like watermarks, web images aren’t good for printing anyway.”
I thought much the same, for many years actually, until a business experience that happened to me last year that threw a curve at me. I was contacted by a publisher in Italy who wanted to use one of my images for the back cover of a new novel by Federico Moccia. We negotiated and agreed upon the usage fee, and I was to send them a 300 dpi file once I received the PO. I also asked if I could get a copy of the novel just for my own records.
A couple of weeks went by, and I am still waiting for the PO from their purchasing department. Strangely enough, around the same time, I also received a package in the mail from Italy. It was a copy of the novel with the use of my photo on the back, complete with photo credit on the inside cover. My first reaction was I was pretty geeked to see it. Mr. Moccia is no small time author in Italy. Then it hit me. HEY!!! – I never sent them the 300 dpi file! WTF?! I was still waiting for the PO.
The image on the back was an alteration of my original image because they wanted to incorporate a heart shaped rock that related to something in the story. The designer also took some liberties with the sky, and they cropped in a bit, added some space, and reversed the whole image. It actually looked pretty good considering. A little too good! It was a normal sized paperback (around 5.5×8 inches/140 mm x 210 mm). Very close inspection showed it wasn’t quite as sharp as a fine print would be, and you could see some artifacts if you got out the magnifying glass. Nothing I think the average person would even notice for the back of a book.
Well, I contacted the picture researcher to thank her for the book and to also ask how they did it given I hadn’t sent the file. Since we had already had a lot of correspondence, I didn’t think I was getting ripped off. I assumed they ran into a publishing deadline – which would be the more likely explanation for such a large company and author. I got assurances that I would be paid per our agreement, but the question of how they did it went largely unanswered. The only place they could have got it was from my website, or someplace else this particular image has been shared on the web, where the max size it could have been was around 750 pixels tall. They even cropped in on those 750 pixels to create the final version.
From there it is a long story in dealing with the accounts payable department in Italy, dealing with the July/August European vacation time, etc, etc. I did eventually get paid. Happy ending right? Well, the publication was nice, but it left in my head much larger questions. How many photos are being printed, distributed, even published that I don’t know about? Apparently web quality jpegs CAN be used for some print purposes.
Michael Russell did a nice series of posts recently on tracking down copyright infringements and I have previously written about doing reverse image searches. But this only tracks down images that are online. If you look at the Google Trends indicators for where nature pictures are being searched for, Sri Lanka and India come up high on the list. Pakistan, Lebanon – other places where, and I could be very wrong, I don’t think copyright laws are the foremost concern.
I have these mental pictures that range from some street vendor selling post cards or prints of the various photographs they have collected online to an actual publishing company printing calendars, books, who knows what else. Is there something that can be done about it? The only fool proof way is to take your work completely offline, and look at only your own prints or on your computer. Well, what fun is that?
As it is now clear to me that even web jpegs can be used (and are being used!) for print publications, I suppose each of us has to make a personal decision on the time and investment you want to spend worrying about this or in tracking it down. Obviously from this example, watermarks can be cropped out or removed with success. I know some photographers complain about them. I have used them ever since reading this post by Attorney Carolyn Wright: Watermarks can be music to your ears. They can give you some legal benefits in infringement situations. Whether that becomes meaningful in some far off land, who knows.
This particular instance just solidified to me that use of web jpegs are something that go beyond unauthorized use on someone’s blog or website. They are indeed good enough for many purposes.