The lingerie brand Superbe.paris stole a photograph from me on the August 6 this year. It’s a photo of a juicy plum held in my hands against my bare legs. They posted it on their Instagram page with the caption “the taste of summer” written in French and a credit with my name.
On discovering it I immediately made a comment on the post: “Hi, you don’t have the copyright for this or my permission; please remove, thanks.” My comment was ignored.
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I am an artist working in photography and I have been sharing my work on Internet platforms since 2007. My work is personal and deals with vulnerability and the naked body. I started on the photo sharing platform Flickr and built a community there. This was before the Internet was known for money making and quick fame. People would ask me if I wasn’t afraid of my photos getting stolen, and I said no — that I liked them spreading to other blogs so that more people could enjoy them. The Internet felt safe. I was excited to start my career, share my work online and be able to make books and exhibitions.
I decided to jump through the hoops of reporting copyright infringement on the stolen plum photo last week. Compared to reporting a nipple which you can do with a couple of clicks this was a lengthy procedure. From the moment of clicking the report button to finally sending the report it took me 18 minutes. I had never made it to the end of a report before because I always felt like I should be doing something better with my time.
My plum photo is constantly popping up in small-to-medium brand feeds. It seems like the image can be used to sell almost anything: beauty products, nutritional supplements, mental health coaching, fashion, concept stores, and all sorts of products with a “feminine empowerment” label. I catch this happening to one of my photos every week. Sometimes because the brands tag me and sometimes because someone else tags me to let me know. I assume the theft happens a lot more than I know.
In the beginning I would just ignore the problem, but as Instagram got more known as a place to sell things and brands needed to fill their feed with constant new content, I started to tell the brands to remove my photos and simultaneously started to become vocal in my community about copyright infringement and brands needing to ask image owners’ permission and pay money for artists’ work. That they didn’t was in fact exploitative and theft.
The majority of artists I am connected to on Instagram see this happening to their work too, especially if they have a larger following. Some younger ones are afraid to ask brands to take the work down. There is an idea that all exposure is good exposure, and that as long as I tag you, you should be grateful. The platform is built on viewer numbers, and the illegal appropriation of artists’ images is allowing brands to take advantage under the pretense that they are helping out. Some artists send retroactive invoices to the brands for their usage, but these rarely get paid. Suing is another expensive option. All options take time and resources.
Most of the brands do remove the photos when I ask them. They often claim that they didn’t know it was illegal. The guidelines state that you can’t upload things you don’t have the copyright to or a license for, but the guidelines are hard to find and are often not implemented.
I do place the most blame on Instagram. They are allowing this to happen repeatedly without prioritizing protecting the artists. While they are building bots to detect and delete body parts or words, they are doing very little to help when artists are getting their work stolen. Is Instagram discussing solutions to this growing issue internally? I have tried to get someone on the platform to talk to me about it, but as with everything else, they are not accessible or transparent.
In response to my copyright report I got an email asking me to provide all the information I had submitted in the form again. I did that with some annoyance, and was finally informed that the image had been removed, and that if I would like to retract the report I could.