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plagiarism cases ~ {the business of photography}

i’ve decided that it’s time i start sharing a little more of the behind-the-scenes aspects of scruffy dog for the many photographers (professional and startups) who follow here … some of the not-so-pretty aspects.  after all, it’s not all cute, scruffy faces all the time, you know.

a lot goes into running a business, making it successful, keeping clients happy … just as much goes into protecting that business.  and one aspect of that which can be a bit of a drain is following up on cases of image theft, and especially trademark infringement and plagiarism.

i’ve offered up blog entries in the past that have touched on protecting your business … and i’ve written about cases of plagiarism.   but now i’m thinking that i will start publicizing more of these cases as they rear their ugly, non-creative heads.  i mean, it’s one thing for me to spend hours and money to protect my business, quietly in the background, perhaps mentioning it now and again on facebook … but what if i started pointing out some of these cases here on the blog?  perhaps this would begin to dissuade those people — who are either lazy or not creative or both — from believing that they can just wantonly help themselves to the content which i and photographers everywhere have worked so hard to build over the years? content that is inherently and distinctly me, not them?

first i will present you with the case and its resolution … and then i will explain WHY it is so vital to your business that plagiarism is pursued.

so, here’s the most recent case … open and shut … you won’t find this photographer in a search because the plagiarized content has now been removed.  i’m refraining from naming names … (but certainly reserve that right for a later date should i see fit).

first, i should say that besides a portfolio page of images, a contact page, and a novella-length “about me” page, the actual content on this photographer’s site is minimal.  there is a very brief Pricing page, and then “my” Session Info page.  i should also mention that, by all appearances, she is a successful wedding and portrait photographer who has been in the industry for exactly as many years as i have (in other words, professional enough to know better, correct?).  her pet photography page — based on the portfolio — is obviously a newer addition.

this is a screen-capture of her … or rather my … Session Info page.  what you see highlighted in yellow is direct copy-and-paste content from my FAQs page — word-for-word … not a comma or dash or word out of place.  complete lift.

in blue highlight is a paragraph which saw some slight alteration on my own site a while ago … so it has been some time that this content has been sitting on this photographer’s site … word-for-word.   also, the very first paragraph is not without its plagiarism, however, it is mostly cobbled together from my content here and there, and as the volume and extent of the other plagiarism is so extreme, there was no need for me to go searching for the origin of this.

for blog pets session info

my letter to the photographer (with a copy to my IP attorney, of course):

Hello Ms. XXXXX,

It is unfortunate that I have to take time out of my busy schedule to write to you today with a request to immediately remove my copyrighted material from your website.  While I am flattered that you have found the content on my site to be a clear source of inspiration for your pet photography business, plagiarism is an offense which is taken very seriously within the creative field and most definitely by me.

I have attached a screen capture of your “Session Info” page, with highlighted areas of the directly plagiarized copy.  This content is direct word-for-word copy-and-paste.  If this copy is not removed by the end of this week, I will be forced to have my IP attorney (to whom this email is copied) contact your web-host with a cease-and-desist to have your site’s content taken down.  In fact, given the extent of plagiarism here we could certainly proceed with this protocol at this time; my email to you is a courtesy.

When it comes to rewriting your “Session Info” page, I would strongly suggest that you start afresh and not use the current ‘content’ as starting point; after all, your current ‘content’ is my content.  By using this as a basis for your revised page, you may only find yourself facing another cease-and-desist.  As someone who also mentors and guides other professional photographers in the field, I highly advise you to set it all aside and start with a blank slate.  Look at your own business and your own sessions and write about what you offer and what you bring that is unique to each session … not what I bring to my sessions.

I look forward to your prompt and professional compliance with this email, and am anxious to review your new “Sessions Info” page.  I wish you all the best with your pet photography career.

now, trust me, this is far, far, far from my first case of full-out copy/paste plagiarism.  and it’s always the same excuses:

– “it wasn’t me! my web-designer/partner/intern put that content together”;

– “i was researching other pet photographers when putting my own site together and must have inadvertently copied your content down”;

– “your site/page was set up so well, and it’s exactly how i run my business!”

– “i’ve been unwell, and you have no idea what it’s like to struggle with your health and have to run a business!” (um, as a matter of fact, i certainly do, and i still work my butt off and i don’t steal someone else’s hard work);

– “you plagiarized me!”  (yeah, i’ve gotten that one twice now)

these are all reasons i have been given for blatant plagiarism over the years.  needless to say, my partner and i were laying bets all evening as to which ‘reason’ i’d hear back … or if i’d hear back.   and i did …

Hello, Illona

I was shocked and mortified to receive your email.  Although pet portraits are not a large part of my business they are still an occasional and enjoyable niche.   I’ve been a  fan of yours for quite some time.   About a year ago I agreed to let a friend’s teenage daughter be my short term “intern” in exchange for college credits.  At the time I wanted to set up a separate website for pet portraits and she wrote some of the copy for that, as well as helping with other organizational tasks.  Clearly, “wrote” is too strong a word.  I encouraged her to review my blog feed, which has since been eliminated, for an idea of how the industry worked.  Clearly she misunderstood ‘inspiration’ for a direct attribution.  I cannot begin to express how upset I am to realize that there was direct plagiarism from your copyrighted material.

I take full responsibility for the issue and have already removed the page from the website.  When I have time I’ll replace it with a page written in my own voice.  I have not trusted more creative aspects of my business to assistants or interns….this was an exception and I’m so disappointed to realize that this was the result. 

While I’m not sure how it will be received, please accept my profound apology. 


… uh-huh.

now, dear SDP blog reader, perhaps you are less hardened, less cynical than i have become over the years … and perhaps you believe this response from an outed thief?  but i’m sorry, as someone who has run a professional business for the same number of years as this photographer, i have a lot of trouble swallowing this.  no photographer in their right mind — much less a professional 6+ years into the business — is going to trust the copy of a new venture/website to some teenage college intern on a “short term” stint.  you are going to write it yourself!  why? because it is your business, your reputation, it is about you!  why on earth would you leave it entirely in the hands of anyone else, much less a teenager?  …and then not once review that content in a year?

but that is beside the point … the point, dear photographer and business owner, is that regardless of whether the ‘intern story’ is truth or not, the content of this photographer’s site — as the owner and sole proprietor of this business — the content is the photographer’s responsibility.  period.   if Coca Cola was discovered to have ripped off some marketing content from Pepsi, and even if the culprit was proven to be some lowly intern, do you think the heat would land on the intern?  well, ultimately, yes, the intern would take a fair heap of crap from Coca Cola and lose his internship, no doubt … but in the world of business, Coca Cola itself is still legally responsible and accountable for the stolen material.

so … why does this matter to you?  why is it so vital to pursue every case of plagiarism if it happens to you?  well, besides the obvious — that someone else has stolen your hard work and creativity, the heart and soul behind your business — well, there’s also the matter of SEO!  Search engine optimization.  if there is duplicate content out there on the great wide interweb and it’s not residing on your domain, you’re in trouble!  your hard-earned standing in the search-engine world is going to start dropping … and dropping fast.  it has to do with crawlers and search-bots and a lot of tech talk, but trust me, your status drops.  and when you’ve worked years to build your business, your business’s name, your business’s reputation, and your business’s SEO, well, YES! you had better do whatever it takes to protect it!

and sadly, even as this blog entry goes up, i am pursuing six more cases of full-on plagiarism today…

UPDATE: since this particular photographer is a long-standing member of PPA (Professional Photograhers of America) i felt it necessary to contact PPA to inform of them of this gross infringement.  I was sent extensive forms to file a formal Ethics Complaint, otherwise the case would not be heard.  I jumped through numerous hoops to adhere to their policies of filing a complaint in order to bring this rather  important matter to their attention.  After weeks and months of waiting, I was finally informed by the Chairman of the Bylaws, Rules and Ethics Committee that:

The Bylaws Rules and Ethics Committee (BRE), after reviewing this complaint, has concluded that there was no violation of the PPA Code of Ethics in this case.

Although the result doesn’t entirely surprise me, it does sadden me.  While I had anticipated that PPA would likely support its member (a paying member) over just some outside/non-member lodging a very legitimate complaint, I had certainly hoped for higher standards from PPA.  I think anyone would find it questionable and certainly unethical that PPA considers reasons/excuses such as “my web-developer did it” or — in this case — “the intern did it” as legitimate defense for plagiarism and – in this case – outright copy-and-paste of an entire page of copyrighted material.

It is a true testament to the lack of ethics in this industry when one of the largest organizations that ‘appears’ committed to holding its members to higher standards and ethics (or at least to the same standards of any other profession, business or industry) actually does not.   If any other company was found to have outright plagiarized complete copy from another company, there would certainly be legal action; it would not be quietly swept under the rug with a simple: ‘oh, the intern did that, sorry.’   Why? because any business – whether sole-proprietor or large corporation – is responsible and liable for their content.

Clearly, PPA agrees that – for its members, at least — this is a perfectly acceptable excuse to present whenever caught, and the onus continues to be on the owner of the copyrighted material, since even with an organization like PPA there is no recourse, nor are there any standards set by example.

…a very sad reflection on PPA, indeed.  I had certainly hoped for more from such an organization, and now know where not to invest membership dues.

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  • Susan HummelI’ve had the same experience with professional organizations in my field. They want your money but otherwise they don ‘t want to hear from you.ReplyCancel

  • Melissa KlingermanWow….I was previously a member of PPA but canceled my membership recently. After reading this I’m even more glad I did. How there could be any doubt as to infringement. ReplyCancel

  • Caitlyn ChapmanHow do you manage to FIND all these cases?! It must be so exhausting!ReplyCancel

  • Sandra MarieGlad it was taken care of in a fast and efficient manner. How many issues like this come up monthly?ReplyCancel

  • judee whiteIt sounds like alot of work just to keep up with this side of the business. Even though we logically know that it happens, it’s still theft and it is wrong. Just because they can’t be seen as easily stealing they hide behind the excuses but it still hurts and is WRONG!
    Keep up the great work.ReplyCancel

  • Lyn ScottI actually joined a group on FB called “Photography Thieves” since last summer several of us friends and photographers were chasing down people that were stealing photos, removing watermarks and posting as their own. It seems to get worse and worse with websites and photos. Sorry this is happening to you too…I enjoy your site and posts.ReplyCancel

  • illonathanks, guys. Shawn … i’m onto EIGHT cases in 27 hours … my lucky day. i could probably hire someone on just to chase down these sorts of things. when it comes to photos, i haven’t had any reported cases in a while … usually it’s clients, fans and followers who alert me to image theft, but i’m pretty diligent about the way i watermark, and especially in the past couple of years it has led to less theft, for sure.

    still, i’ve had my share of image theft … oh yes! and a couple of cases of ‘passing off’ … and then, of course, trademark infringement.ReplyCancel

  • Ingrid CastroI went through something very similar with the dog walking I do and someone recommended your blog posts re: plagiarism. Thank you so much for being an inspiration into calling these people out. It is so unprofessional and beyond rude to copy someones content. ReplyCancel

  • shawn andersonI want to say, “Wow, unbelievable that people do this”… but, I am not naive and it is unfortunately believable and a truly sad thing that happens all too often. I am glad you have the fortitude and means to stand up for yourself and the business you have created. Kudos to you! Plagiarism in the sense of written word aside, do you also find people stealing your photos and claiming them as their own as a way of boosting their own portfolio?ReplyCancel

  • michelle bradshawWow, it never ceases to amaze me how some people things it’s ok to just take what they want from someone else. I’m so sorry you had to go through this yet again……ReplyCancel

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