Stealing is easy: being original is hard

Every now and again, something happens which reminds you that the internet isn’t the respectful, creative, collaborative place that we rather naively hope it is, but is actually infested with people who seek to exploit, destroy and undermine the work of others.

It’s not that surprising, unfortunately, but it is a bit disappointing.

Take my 2006 camphone photo taken on the tube, of a girl reading a book:


Or rather, don’t take it. Admire it. Link to it. Comment on it. Favourite it. Tell me you like it, you value my work, you think it’s funny/clever/well-composed if you like, but don’t take it and pass it off as your own work.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen this (hasty and rather crap resolution due to being taken with a camphone) shot being included in emailed & blogged collections of “great trick photography photos” and the like. Here are just a few of the places it’s been spotted over the years. Without exception in these circumstances, the image is used without permission, with no credit or link to me (therefore falling foul of Flickr’s terms of service as well as my wishes as the creator of the work). Sometimes it even appears with someone else’s watermarked copyright notice on it, which I think is cheeky, to be honest.

This evening, it happened again. It was brought to my attention by a friend that a “photographer” – Rob Jarvis was passing off the Geisha image as his own on his site (which seems to be hosted on Facebook.


Here’s the email I sent him via Flickr:

Hi Rob Jarvis

I got your link from a friend, who recommended I check out your photos of people, via

I’m very impressed with the quality and diversity of the images in that gallery. Such excellent pictures.

However, it’s a shame that they’re not your work – in fact, one of them is mine, which you appear to be claiming as your own, and accepting kudos and compliments on.

This one: [note: since removed, mysteriously] on your site, is actually my photo, taken in 2006 and originally posted here:

And this one: [note: also vanished] is originally by Ed Scoble and findable on Flickr here:

How many other images in that gallery – and your entire site – are actually stolen from others? Taking others images and passing them off as your own work by putting them on your site with no disclaimer or credit, and stamped with your own copyright notice, is extremely irritating and demonstrates a total lack of respect for other photographers’ work.

I want you to remove the image from your site immediately and replace it with a public apology, explaining that the image was taken without permission from another photographer, and providing details of where people can see the original. That’s the very least you can do, considering the circumstances. I expect others you have infringed will ask you to do the same.

Meg Pickard

Whether he got this message or otherwise had a coincidental and sudden change of heart I don’t know, but the two images I mentioned above have been taken down from his site now. Many others remain.

UPDATE: see end of post

Now, I’m not seeking to make money from this image, and nor am I particularly ferocious about traditional copyright. In fact, I’m a big believer in the power of creative commons licenses which offer a variety of ways for individuals to assert specific rights, while making content available to be used, remixed, shared and so on, in accordance with their specific wishes.

But this Geisha experience over the last three and a half years, (and it’s not the first time someone’s ripped off my work as their own) makes me want to pull all my content off the internet entirely and never share or publish again. It’s certainly enough to make me restrict who can see larger sizes or download my photos on Flickr.

Ironically, the fact that some people are unable to respect other people’s creative work makes me become more closed and black and white and less likely to share things using creative commons licenses. After all, if people can’t be trusted to understand “simple” copyright, what hope have we got of getting them to understand a more complex (albeit more flexible and open) license?

It’s a shame that this is the result.

I wish we could encourage people to praise, link to and credit each others work when they share it.

I wish it was as cool to be a curator as a creator of things.

I’d like people to think it was enough to introduce others to things they like or have found (I find Tumblr is particularly good for this), and not have to pretend it was their own work. Perhaps then we’d see a bit more respect for origin, and more people would be inspired to create and share.

UPDATE 11 January 2010

Rob replied to my Flickr message this morning, saying simply “never claimed to be mine, its now removed.”

When I tried to reply to thank him for removing it, I discovered that he has blocked me so I can’t send him messages.

Rob, if you’re reading this: Thanks for removing it from your collection, though with respect, you had your copyright notice on it, and were publishing it on your site, and accepting comments and plaudits on it. That looks a lot like you were taking credit for it. Nevertheless, thanks for removing it.

UPDATE 11 January 2010, later

Rob has apologised in the comments below. The specific issue is resolved (thank you), so let’s not dwell on Rob or his particular actions any longer. Apology accepted. Let’s move on.

However, the general point about providing appropriate credit for curated work and being sensitive to other people’s usage wishes, remains. This is perhaps amplified by Piers’ rather surprising comment (also below). He states:

If you don’t want your work copied, you shouldn’t put it online. It’s that simple and it’s up to you not everyone else.

If that is indeed the case (and I don’t believe it is), then how utterly miserable and misanthropic the world must seem.

29 thoughts on “Stealing is easy: being original is hard

  1. Yes, spot on. I find it incredibly cheeky that someone can use such a unique image, and then try and pass it off as their own piece of work.

    The idea of sharing and collaboration is what draws me to working online. But there are boundaries that need to respected.

    I’ve had a similar experience this weekend. An entire blog post was cut and pasted, including video, audio and images, and then given the byline of the online thief. I was then made to feel guilty for calling to question such a ‘worthy’ cause:

    Yes, I too am having the same feeling of ‘what’s the point?’

    I hate to think of how many instances of copyright theft has taken place from genuine, inspiring bloggers. It’s hard to keep track of all content that appears.

  2. It makes me so angry. I have had work taken from myself a few years ago and the person I challenged about it had the audacity to make me feel like I’d stolen from her! The cheek of it. I know Ed as well and he’s one of the nicest blokes you could meet and goes out of his way to help people on Flickr with their film and LOMO techniques. It’s a piss-take.

    Just did a WHOIS query on this Rob Jarvis. We could all write him an angry letter…

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  5. I feel your pain, Meg.

    I’ve never had my work outright stolen, but there are dozens of websites that have republished articles of mine with no compensation nor even permission asked.

    I think you showed great restraint in your email. Not sure I would have been quite as polite. With that, and with this post, hopefully you’ve unleashed something that will bring this particular thief down and also spread wider so that more people understand the nature of copyright.

    Keep us, er, posted. 🙂

  6. Just to clarify – I don’t want to take anyone down or cause a witch hunt, but I do want to make a point about callous and systematic disregard for other people’s creative work. This sort of thing needs to be called out when we see it.

    The irony is the original images on his site (and the most recent things of his on Flickr, which I think are his own work) are actually really interesting, striking, technically accomplished images.

    What a shame that their quality is distracted by his casual, careless approach to others’ work.

  7. Meg – I’ve looked through some of the original images, and yes, I agree. But it’s upsetting to think that he may have secured work or accolades thanks to the images that aren’t his forming part of his self-promotion.

  8. See? There’s that restraint I was talking about. 🙂

    I second what 3.1 said, and also think if his own work is so compelling (if it is, indeed his own), why would he need to bolster it by stealing others’?

    Anyway, your point well and thoughtfully made.

  9. Sherry – Just because I’m restrained now doesn’t mean I was restrained earlier. 😉 I could’ve quite have easily not taken a screenshot of some of the comments that were deleted, but I did, and I posted them onto the Internet for everybody to form their own opinion.

    I am however considering writing him a polite letter, seeing as it was a bit too easy (in my rage) to find an address associated to him.

    The sad thing is though, come next week, this might all seem like a storm in a teacup to most people (and most probably to him too, seeing as there still is no public acknowledgement to the whole situation), but it’s just the tip of the iceberg of what is essentially quite a large problem these days.

  10. cheeky sod.

    i’m a freelance journalist and a couple of years ago an investigation of mine turned up WORD FOR WORD on the front page of another newspaper, under two other people’s bylines.

    Not only had passed my work off as their own – and been paid for it – destroying any resale potential for me, but they had also made no attempt to check the facts or quotes in a piece that was about a very sensitive issue (abused children).

    That’s outrageous enough in itself but it had taken me a long time to get access to a survivor who was willing to talk.
    When I contacted the editor, I got completely fobbed off. Luckily the syndication editor of the paper where it was originally printed made a few threats to force them to act.

    It still makes me furious thinking about it now

  11. Stuff like this really chaps my hide! I think the worst thing about it is that this person clearly understands copyright, and so should know how it would feel to have work out-and-out stolen. If he’s working as a professional, who knows what other kinds of dubious things he is doing, I for one wouldn’t trust him and wouldn’t want to do business with him. Professional photography is a tough, competitive field, but it’s still no excuse for theft. It shows that he is not secure in the power of his own images, and needs to steal to fluff up his portfolio/self. It’s just so pathetic in the end. And infuriating! And depressing as I’m sure it happens a lot. Good for standing up to him!!

  12. Well – it looks like he’s ‘disappeared’. His Facebook page no longer exists and his Flickr page goes from the ‘Rob Jarvis Photography’ username to ‘Been Hacked’. I reckon it’s not a case of the latter but simply him finally getting the message.

    No sign of that apology though.

  13. I think some of it is down to a lack of knowledge about copyright, fair use, Creative Commons etc, and some it is down to laziness and downright theft. I’ve seen professional journalists use Google image search for example, even the day after updated legal training…

    I’d really be interested in tracking the percentage of people properly using Creative Commons vs those nicking a specific image, to see what the actual ratio might be. I suspect it’s going to depress me more than anything, but it would be worth knowing.

    Either way I’m jealous of a very cool pic – I’d have got an awesome shot of my thumb which noone would steal…

  14. Hi Meg, The images where never stated as mine, there’s another folder that is called “discovered” these should hold all the images that have been discovered over the web etc, the copyright information at the bottom of all my images should have been removed, these are generally batch added upon upload.
    I do apologise sincerely and have never profited on the images, all images involved have been removed intermediately as with the false copyright information.
    Kind regards

  15. Weird. I thought of this photo of yours when I saw the latest Horlicks advert yesterday – there’s a scene in that which I’m sure is inspired by this shot.

  16. Oh please, Piers. That’s almost as bad as saying authors shouldn’t publish books or musicians shouldn’t sell their music. The just because one chooses to put work on the Internet doesn’t make it exempt from basic rules that apply everywhere else in the real world.

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  18. Rob – thanks for the apology and explanation. It goes to show how easy it is to mistakenly do the wrong thing, especially when dealing with batch uploads. In my experience, the simplest way to ensure that credit remains intact alongside the image is to link rather than download/upload elsewhere.

    I’ve amended the above post to reflect the latest developments.

    I’d appreciate it if everyone else commenting here would give Rob kudos for seeing the error of his ways and doing the right thing swiftly and graciously.

    But Piers…you’re kidding, aren’t you?

  19. I’m genuinely shocked. Once it got published on the internet I would little imagine people would have to nerve to pass it off as their own, though I’m idealistic(/naive I guess) that way.

  20. My attitude is that of a librarian or researcher – “What are your sources ?” The whole point of the web is collaboration through linking. I, for one, do NOT want to return to the medieval abbey library model. That model left errors unchallenged and solutions hidden from sight. Our hostess, Meg, has every right to expect credit for her published works. Her work, valuable as is, may also inspire someone to create a collage or poem or something indescribable. If she were to de-publish that opportunity would be lost.

    Thank you Meg for some neat posts.

    NB – I remember reading a novel about an interstellar version of the web. There were senior-level systems administrators (sysadmins) whose job was to confirm and correct web attributions. There were substantial royalties tied to those attributions. Part of the novel concerned the training of such a sysadmin. The odd elements of the book included high fashion designed by the main character (he chose discreet credit and a discount from his tailor IIRC) and descendants of transplanted Amerinds who were trying to secede from the internet. Unfortunately I don’t have the author’s name or the book’s title ready to hand.

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  22. I wonder if Piers ever parks his car in a street and expects it to be there still when he returns from some errand?

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  24. @Piers – I guess you’ll get round to removing the copyright notice from the footers of your own website then, as you see no point in expecting other people to respect © or provide attribution where its due?

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