Back in 2008, Dan Catt took a picture of his young son drinking from a juice box, the flaps ingeniously lifted up to give his small hands something to grip. He posted the picture on Flickr with the title “Parent Hacks: The Juice Box Flaps” and a caption explaining that the flap trick keeps kid “from squirting juice all over themselves when trying to pick it up.”
It’s a cute picture, and although it was taken more than five years ago, there’s a good chance you’ve seen it in the past couple of weeks: even though it was listed on Flickr as copyrighted to Catt, a BuzzFeed writer grabbed it and used it as item number 14 on a list of “18 Everyday Products You’ve Been Using Wrong“—a popular post that’s registered 7,000 tweets, 101,000 Facebook shares, and more than 4.3 million views.
Plenty of people have had a similar experience—enough that BuzzFeed has a form on the site through which photographers can report copyright issues.
“BuzzFeed is a company full of creative people, so our priority is to work with these outside photographers, make sure we do the right thing, and compensate them appropriately,” says Ashley McCollum, BuzzFeed’s VP for business development communications. “This is a real priority for us, and we spend huge amounts of money every year to make sure that happens.” The Web form the company has set up is part of that effort: It sends an email directly to the art director, who resolves these issues.
But rather than simply requesting payment for the use of his photo, Catt decided to draw attention to the issue, to “shine a light on BuzzFeed’s practices,” he said. In listicle form, of course.
And he gave his post an attention-getting title: “10 Good Reasons BuzzFeed Is Going To Pay My F#$king Invoice For Copyright Theft*”
Technically, as Catt acknowledges under that asterisk, it’s copyright infringement, not theft—BuzzFeed didn’t take anything from him; it stepped on his right to distribute his work as he pleased. This behavior is a problem not just for BuzzFeed, but news sites large and small, across the Internet, which play fast and loose with copyright rules—lifting and publishing photos with unclear sourcing, ignoring the fine distinctions that Creative Commons licenses can require, knowing full well that a photo is copyrighted and using it anyway and hoping the photographer doesn’t notice. BuzzFeed’s been subject to particular criticism on this issue, in part because it relies so heavily on image-driven posts and in part because it’s been so successful with that strategy. (4.3 million views is enough to make any Web editor’s head turn.)
For the most part, the copyright slips, shortcuts, and intentional appropriations that editors indulge in go unnoticed and unremarked. Catt, who’s worked both for the Guardian and for Flickr, decided not to let this one slide. And as a photographer who understands journalism, understands copyright, and understands the Internet—both its perils and its possibilities—he managed to reveal a few facts behind the comforting fictions too many reporters and editors use to reassure themselves that copyright laws only sort of apply to photos on the Internet.
First of all, rules do matter, and if you don’t respect the ones copyright owners set for use of their photos, they might not respect yours.
It’s not clear from Catt’s post, but he didn’t exactly send Buzzfeed an invoice before airing his grievances on the internet. His first course of action was to send a cheeky tweet in the direction of BuzzFeed and the editor listed as the author of the post:
A second tweet, sent the next day, a Sunday, and directed at a different set of editors, elicited a response. By that time, though, Catt had heard from a couple of other photographers who were all less-than-happy with BuzzFeed, and he had decided to poke around a little bit more. On Monday, he read up on BuzzFeed’s past copyright transgressions and on founder and CEO Jonah Peretti’s public comments on these issue, wrote his post, and sent it out into the wilds of the Internet.
“Other than those tweets I hadn’t contacted BuzzFeed or sent an invoice,” he wrote in an email. “I decided that I wanted to draw attention to the issue (and aping the BuzzFeed list format and using colourful language seemed a good way of doing that) rather than just having the “mistake” paid-off….So from BuzzFeed’s point of view, no, I didn’t give them a chance to make things right and pay before I hit the publish button.”
Not everyone wants an established platform to draw attention to their work, either; there’s an argument that having a photo featured on a big, well-trafficked site like BuzzFeed can benefit a lesser-known photographer. Every once in awhile, someone has to click through those credit links, right? It’s an easy excuse for skipping the annoyance of asking for permission to use a photo that you know is off-limits: after all, it’s the thought that counts.
Catt knew that, by posting pictures to Flickr, he ran the risk that a photo would be lifted. But he wrote in his post that, though he licenses about a quarter of the photos he posts under Creative Commons, which gives others the right to use them, he had kept this one under copyright for a reason: He thought that, perhaps, one day he would collect various “parent hacks” into a “10 Neat Things I Learnt While Being A Parent.” If the BuzzFeed editor had reached out and asked for permission, he would have said no—an inconvenience for the editor, who, after losing time while waiting for a response, would then have had to find another picture to use in its place.
Now that BuzzFeed has used the photo, though, it’s entered into that special sphere of the internet’s “sharing” culture where work spreads far and wide, often without any credit, losing any connection to its original creator. “I’m not really going to chase the image around Tumblr and the rest of the internet, DMCAing it back,” Catt wrote, referring to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which allows copyright holders to request that illegal copies of their work to be taken off the Internet. “I know that horse has bolted. I just wanted to highlight the complete PITA that would be and also how impossible it would be.”
He did eventually talk to BuzzFeed, which, at his request, paid $500 to the Chordoma Foundation as compensation. But with the blog post, he had already extracted a form of compensation in his own way, too.
Catt had a number of suggestions for improving BuzzFeed’s copyright practices, including using Flickr’s API to check the license on photos used from that site, and, if a photo’s copyrighted, pop-up a notice to the writer. But the fact is, it’s easier for companies like BuzzFeed to mostly-but-not-entirely follow copyright rules and deal with the vocal challengers, like Catt, when they infrequently pop up.
BuzzFeed itself is sensitive to the complaints it’s been getting about copyright, McCollum said. “We work hard to train new employees and keep quality control to a high standard,” she says. After Catt made a stink about the use of his photo in “18 Everyday Products You’ve Been Using Wrong,” the picture was quickly switched out for another, credited to The Mommyhood.com, the blog of Heather Alexander, who writes a column on motherhood for the Knoxville News Sentinel.
But this new photo isn’t necessarily any cleaner. The post Buzzfeed linked to was an old one, from 2010, and the picture isn’t clearly credited to Alexander or another source, although at the bottom of the page, there’s a copyright notice: “© 2013 TheMommyhood.com. All Rights Reserved.” CJR emailed Alexander to ask if she remembered where the photo came from and if she knew it was being used in the BuzzFeed post.
“Yes, I took the photo,” she wrote back. “No, I did not give permission for anyone to use it, and I didn’t realize it was being used.”
Disclosure: CJR has received funding from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to cover intellectual-property issues, but the organization has no influence on the content.