Regarding Image Theft in Japan

Couple weeks ago I received a message from a friend whose photo I took back in 2012. In her message she told me that her face is appearing in this shady website of Japanese company which sells some kind of medicines. And it indeed, there my photo was. In description she was told to be 42 years old, which is not her real age. Against her knowledge or consent she was endorsing their product, her face clearly recognisable. She was frightened if her appearance was used in further, more damaging way.

It was pretty clear to me from the beginning that the image was stolen from Flickr since that and Facebook are the only places where I uploaded it. Later communication with the company verified that the image indeed was downloaded from Flickr.

I was pretty shocked. But my initial shock was nothing compare to what was to come. I called the company in Saturday morning, and explained the situation. The first guy was pretty polite and he seemed to understand what is the issue. But what they asked me was a jaw-dropper.

They asked me to provide the model’s name, address and phone number. Because they need to check something. Yup. Can you believe that?

My hands were shaking. I said that I will never provide them such information, and that such inquiry is absurd. Since my Japanese skill is not native level, I thought it’s better to ask my friend’s help.

So, my Japanese friend called them and explained the issue calmly from the beginning. They said they will get back to me on Monday. The image disappeared from the site sometimes during the weekend and was replaced with a photo of cappuccino cup.

The company did finally call me on Tuesday. The man asked me have I ever heard of this company called Flickr. According to him, Flickr is a free site and they had legally obtained the image from the site. My hands were shaking again, real bad this time.

However, I managed to keep myself pretty calm, and I directed him to my Flickr page and my image. I asked if he is familiar of meaning of english text “All rights Reserved” and copyright mark. He gave me kind of muffled answer that was nowhere near apology, more like “uhhmm.. I .. see..”.

I told him that if I ever see another image of mine in their site, lawsuit will follow.

What’s really sad is that it seems all the images of people in the site are probably stolen same way. All these beautiful people smiling and endorsing their product without knowing. To imagine what kind of group lawsuit could be possible is kind of mind baffling, if these people only knew.

It is always very important to verify the source of the images that are used in website designs. Purchasing images from popular sites such as iStockphoto and Getty is generally acceptable since they require model release, therefore model in image accepts that her appearance might be used in advertisement. The permit written in model releases however does not usually extend to medical products, and does not allow use which suggests that the person in image is personally endorsing the product. There is no model release that would allow that kind of usage of the image I saw in the site.

It seems it is up to the photographer himself to defend his rights. I just cannot let this kind of thing slide. Not as long as I call myself “photographer.”

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