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May 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 42, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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When They Steal Your Photos from the Web

the Internet is not fair game

from the May, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Digital photography has made underwater photography available to everyone now, but it certainly makes it harder for professionals to make a living at it. Every day we see hundreds of marvellous underwater pictures turn up on our Facebook news feeds. The sheer volume of material makes it seem free, too. But it isn't free. Not unless the author chooses to make it so.

Tony Wu, an American self-styled photo-naturalist and photographer based in Japan, has spent a lot of time and effort (not to mention money) photographing whales. He was rather dismayed to find that an Austrian diving tour operator, Water World, had used some of his sperm whale pictures on its web site to advertise a forthcoming trip. Water World had done this without his knowledge, prior permission, or compensation.

Not only was this tantamount to theft, but it was also misleading potential clients.

Water World in Austria is run by Werner Thiele, an award-winning underwater photographer of many years' standing. He should have known better. The ad stated that the company's team of scouts had just returned from Sri Lanka with these impressive images.

Wu, rightly annoyed, posted a protest on Facebook. This generated so much rage and consternation that Thiele contacted Wu with an apology. The two frequently corresponded over the following weeks, with Thiele protesting that he, too, was a victim of circumstances. He claimed he was supplied the pictures directly by Tom Gebhardt of the Aggressor Fleet sales department, who at first insisted the pictures had been sent to him by a friend, later a friend of a friend, in Sri Lanka.

In a further message, Gebhardt told Wu that he got the pictures from an un-named friend of Wu, who communicated that Wu had taken them in Sri Lanka in February of this year. However, Wu had been in Mexico at that time, as any friend of his might have known. Moreover, he had taken the photos in 2014.

Eventually, the Aggressor's Gebhardt admitted lifting them from a Facebook page -- Global Whales. Anyone looking at this page will note that the name of the author -- Tony Wu -- is clearly announced.

Meanwhile, Thiele was clearly distressed by this subterfuge. Over the course of a few days, Gebhardt's admitted source for the photographs had changed from a friend in Sri Lanka to the friend of a friend, to a friend of Wu. It appears that after Gebhardt had downloaded the pictures from the Global Whales Facebook page, he sent them to Thiele without revealing the true source, implying instead they were taken by 'a friend'.

Wu wrote, "One statement made to Thiele by Gebhardt is instructive."

Gebhardt is alleged to have written, "Sounds pretty bad, but as far as I know, images on the Web (not HR originals and not copyrighted, published on Facebook and other social media sites) are fair game, no?"

Well, Mr. Gebhardt, they are not fair game any more than your pocketbook is fair game.

Gebhardt also appears to be somewhat less than contrite in a message sent to Thiele. "This crap bugs me, and this is what I get when trying to be nice and help people."

Tony Wu accepts that Werner Thiele made a mistake. He should have known better than to use unattributed pictures in his ad. He was supplied them by the Aggressor Fleet sales department, rather than a photographer, and he should have checked their provenance. Thiele offered his apologies and withdrew the ad at the first mention of a copyright problem.

Some people who booked a trip with Thiele's company canceled because of the poor publicity on Facebook. Wu bears him no ill will and suggests that potential clients should not either.

In collecting the sequence of events, Wu says that in early March Gebhardt sent the initial email to Thiele, which included the words, "PS, By the way, a friend of mine was in Sri Lanka about a month ago and he sent me these pics (attached). Pretty impressive, don't you think. Sperm Whales."

Thiele says because of this, he was led to believe the pictures sent to him by Gebhardt were available for use.

In an apologetic email from Gebhardt to Wu, Gebhardt attempts to put the blame firmly on Thiele. It reads: "What happened here is truly a complete misunderstanding by Mr. Thiele. When sending him the images I found on Facebook, he truly and mistakenly thought it was images he could use for promotional purposes..."

People in the industry ought to know that all works of art are subject to copyright, and the onus is upon those who wish to reproduce them to establish permission of the owner to do so. Surely, the Aggressor Fleet knows better?


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