• Millie Clinton

Having my work stolen...

I realise there’s bigger things going on in the world right now but I really want to get my feelings out about this. (I’m so melodramatic, aren’t I?)

My work gets stolen all the time. I’ll see images I’ve created somewhere, when I’ve not been paid for the rights, and more often than not they haven’t even bloody asked, either. I’ve seen my photographs used on websites and blogs, in online ads, even those ridiculous quizzes you get on Facebook. Companies use my photographs, not just as part of their marketing content, but as part of their logo (not kidding, a restaurant in Germany I think it was). Worse, I’ve seen artists paint identical replicas. Not paintings inspired by - I’m not a dick - but actual replicas. They may as well have painted by numbers. I’ve seen artists selling their IDENTICAL replicas of my work, into the thousands of dollars, and prints for hundreds. (And the work is so alike that a service I use to pick up where my images are published identified it!)

I sort of get it. You see a picture floating around on Pinterest, you see it on Instagram - as far as you’re concerned it’s free to use. I don’t think that’s malicious, I just think it’s the mentality that’s developed in the internet age: if you can access it for free, surely can do what you want with it?

‘Stuff’ on the internet does not find its way there spontaneously. It doesn’t just exist within the realm of ‘the internet’ either. Behind every cutesy illustration or pretty photo you find on Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr (if you’re stuck in 2010) etc is more than just a pretty picture on the screen. I can speak from my own experience how much goes into creating a singular, or set of, photographs.

I understand some of my photos may look candid, but let me give you some insight: it starts with an idea. Maybe I’ll pass a photogenic place, maybe I’ll see one of the girls I shoot wearing a really pretty outfit, or hair style or make up. Did you know, actually, that some of the time I’ll have bought clothes for my models (if I saw clothes I just had to photograph them in) or I’ll do their make up (if I have a look in mind that had to be just right) - so there’s another expense and more of my time and effort. I digress. Once the idea is there, it’s bouncing around my head. I plan everything: where we’re going, how we get there (pre-COVID I’d insist on driving so models wouldn’t have to pay for their transport) what they’ll wear, how they’ll have their hair and make up. This is all going on behind the scenes in the weeks leading up to the shoot. I know it’s not ‘effort’, but I want you to know just how much love I put into my images.

And then I buy film for the shoot. I usually shoot a couple of rolls of 35mm and one medium format. So that’s easily around £35ish (depending on stock and retailer) of my own money before I’ve even stepped foot out the door. Then there’s my fuel to pick up my model and take us wherever we’re going. Because I’m not in a position to pay my models (sorry guys, you know I love you though) I always try and at least buy them a drink when we’re out and about, if not lunch if I’m able to.

Once the shoot is done, I have to send the film off for processing. I spend anywhere between £30 and £90 for processing in one go. Let’s stick to my typical example, though: two 35mms, one 120. That’s £34. For one, small shoot. (Yes the lab is expensive but they’re amazing and worth every penny, so that’s not a criticism of them or their pricing.) Now imagine that I’m doing these “just for fun” shoots (the ones that I plan myself) let’s say once a week, but it’s sometimes more frequently. Did I mention it costs more if the film is black and white?

And don’t forget the more mundane behind the scenes costs like hosting my website and mail box.

How am I financing this price-y hobby? I was a waitress for 4 years. More or less every penny I earned went on photo shoots. After that, I found it quite hard to find graduate employment (I have a law degree) and then the virus came. I have severe asthma and so obviously had to put my health first, so it felt like I was back where I started. I don’t think it’s fair for me to complain because I am very privileged and lucky. My family are so supportive of my hobby. I don’t really do much else, to be fair. I also do some social media stuff on the side, I accept sponsored posts on my blog and on my main Instagram, but honestly? They’re few and far between and one ad will only cover the cost of one shoot. Possibly not even the full cost. And obviously pre-COVID I took on clients for portraits. But not many (mostly because I can’t be arsed to advertise myself, I think. Also because people don’t understand film. I’ve genuinely had “I just want pictures not video?”)

I don’t begrudge the cost of my hobby. Not only because I’m so fortunate to have people who love me enough to treat me to film and processing, but because I love it so much. I’ve genuinely been doing this for a fucking decade. And I’m not even 24 until September! Every person I’ve shot with will be able to verify how genuinely passionate I am about what I do.

So when people use my images without my permission or without paying me for the right to do so - and worse, profiting from it - you’re totally disregarding how much went into that one image - the “just a photo on Pinterest”- that they stole, used and reproduced without giving it a second thought. Not only that, they’re stealing from someone who isn’t in exactly a great financial position. (I’m not struggling and I’m incredibly lucky, but I’m not going to lie to you: I have very little of my own.) My work is copyrighted, I exclusively own the rights, so yes it is stealing. And yes, I do charge for the rights to use my work. Not only that, but I just want to be asked. If someone wanted to use it and couldn’t pay me, and they were just using it on a blog or painting a version of it just for fun, I’d probably waive the fee anyway. It’s so fucking disrespectful to not even ask me.

Even if you found it on Pinterest or whatever, it’s easy to find the owner. Usually if you click through the sources you’ll find the original, or just reverse image search it. Citing your source as Pinterest simply isn’t good enough. And if you can’t find the original owner to ask permission, you don’t assume you have permission by default, because you dont. Can’t find the owner? You can’t use it. Plain and simple.

What bothers me the most is that it’s artists that seem to be doing this. People who surely know what it’s like to have your creations chronically under valued; for people to underestimate how much effort, love, time and money goes into something that basically just exists for people to look at. They just don’t seem to give a shit about the person they’re stealing from: the 22 year old waiting tables to be able to pay to get that picture they stole onto their computer screen. The 23 year old who’s embarrassingly having to borrow money from her parents to pay for the film that ‘their’ painting was originally created on. Is it because you think photography isn’t really art? Or it’s an effortless art? Because it takes a lot of effort. Trust me.

And if you’re painting my work to hang somewhere or to sell; or you’re using my image to advertise your company or to illustrate your website, you should pay me. You should at least ask permission - I’m very nice, I promise - I won’t take the piss. It’s the law, for starters, but ultimately it’s the right and courteous thing to do. There doesn’t seem to be any recourse for me. I can’t afford to take legal action, and even if I could it’d be difficult because they’re often from another country and difficult to trace from just an Instagram or a Facebook page. When I’ve asked (yes asked! I’m such a fool aren’t I?) nicely if I can send them an invoice, I’m blocked. Even if I politely let them know I’m offended and that they should have asked permission, I’m blocked. Sometimes they’ll delete it and I’m like okay great but that doesn’t take away the fact you stole from me and therefore owe me money.

It’s not the end of the world, like I said I know there’s far, far more important issues right now. But seeing my work stolen again and again is genuinely hurtful, not to mention the massive kick in the teeth when I see a painting of my picture sold for thousands of dollars. And what do I have to show for it? Fuck all. Not even a reply to an email telling them how hurt I was that they didn’t even reach out to ask.

There’s not a lot I can do except tell you how hurtful it is to me personally (and I’m sure other photographers feel the same if it happens to them) and hope it happens less often from now on. I can only implore you to try and discourage copyright infringement and theft when you see it. For example, if you see people uploading pictures from Pinterest, gently let them know to credit the owner or they should take it down. Talk in your creative circles about how important it is to be original (I’d have thought this was a given to be fair, but apparently not.) And most importantly, don’t consume online content without acknowledging that, behind it, there’s a real life person who created that. And if you steal it, they’d be really hurt.

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