Flickr photo appears in Virgin Mobile’s brochures


With artists and journalists increasingly turning to the Internet to self-publish their work, marketers are finding a wealth of material online. The result, in some cases, has stretched standards of fair play.

Chris Sorensen
Business Reporter – TORONTO STAR NEWSPAPER

Professional photographers are routinely paid thousands of dollars by big companies to take pictures that will help sell products – but some amateur shutterbugs are unwittingly doing the work for free.

Alan McDermott never imagined that a photo he took last year of a striking piece of Dublin graffiti would end up in a Canadian cellphone company’s promotional material without his permission.

McDermott, 38, was strolling down a lane in the Irish capital when he spotted a visually stunning piece of street art – a young girl releasing a heart-shaped balloon – that closely resembled the work of the renowned British graffiti artist known as “Banksy,” despite a misspelling of the shadowy figure’s moniker.

A hobby photographer, he snapped a few pictures before the mural was scrubbed away. He later touched up the picture using a computer program and uploaded it to the photo-sharing website Flickr.

While he knew the photo was good, he was still shocked to learn this week that the same picture was being used by cellphone giant Virgin Mobile in its latest Canadian ad campaign.

“Virgin is a multibillion-dollar company,” McDermott said in an interview, adding he never gave anyone permission to use his image. “They should know better.”

The Canadian arm of the cheeky mobile company was originally conceived as a joint venture between Sir Richard Branson’s sprawling Virgin Group and Bell Canada Inc., but is now wholly owned by Bell. “The image was taken from Flickr,” said Chris Baines, a spokesman for Virgin in Canada. “We do apologize and will be in touch with (the photographer).”

Baines said the picture was used only in a “small quantity of booklets produced to go to the media to explain our campaign” and there are no plans to include it in the company’s advertising.

Such incidents are becoming increasingly common as people turn to the web to self-publish their work and share personal information. Courts are struggling to adapt copyright and licensing laws that were not conceived with the Internet in mind.

Flickr is just one example. Owned by web giant Yahoo, the site claims to be the repository for more than 3.5 billion images, with some three million new photos uploaded every day.

McDermott said his photo is clearly marked under a licence from Creative Commons, a non-profit group seeking alternatives to traditional copyright and licensing laws. He said he selected a licence that requires the image to be credited, and that it not be altered or used for commercial purposes without permission.

In addition to carrying several lines of advertising copy, McDermott said the version of his picture that appeared in Virgin Mobile’s booklet was cropped and re-coloured to give it the appearance of an older photograph. There is no photo credit.

“It’s not an accidental mistake, it’s outright theft,” McDermott said.

McDermott said he wants Virgin to pay him the “going rate” for his photo, noting that an online colleague recently sold a picture posted on Flickr for more than $1,000 (U.S.) through stock photo agency Getty Images. Getty has a deal with Flickr that allows it to select high-quality images and include them in its archives in exchange for a licensing fee paid to the photographer.

It’s not the first time McDermott has run into problems with others taking his work. He once snapped a photo of rock superstar Bono at a U2 concert only to discover that a stranger had lifted the image from Flickr and was trying to sell it on eBay.

Nor is it the first time that Virgin Mobile has been accused of improperly using somebody else’s image in their advertising. According to The New York Times, the company was taken to court in 2007 after a 15-year-old Dallas student discovered that her picture, taken by a friend at a church-sponsored car wash, had made its way onto a Virgin Mobile billboard in Australia. The ad painted Alison Chang in a less than flattering light.

However, unlike McDermott’s photo, the Times story said the photographer did not specify that the picture wasn’t to be used for commercial purposes, leaving the case to focus on Chang’s privacy rights.

There is a degree of irony in Virgin Mobile’s latest run-in with Flickr that’s not lost on McDermott. Virgin no doubt selected the photo because Banksy, as a well-known graffiti artist, is an edgy, anti-establishment figure – an image Virgin also wants to project through its brand. But Banksy, whose true identity is the source of speculation, has also been quoted as saying “copyright is for losers,” suggesting that he does not expect to retain ownership of his unsolicited work.

It’s not clear whether McDermott’s photo is of a real Banksy piece – the tag under the image is spelled “Bansky” – or someone else’s homage to the graffiti artist.

Not all of McDermott’s experiences with Flickr have been negative. He recounted a request he once received by the popular band Radiohead.

The group sought permission to publish on its website one of his photos, taken during one of the band’s outdoor concerts. “I said, `Of course, you can put it on your website – just credit me for it,’ which they did.

“That’s the way it should be.”

TORONTO STAR

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