So you think you want your photo to go viral?

Ben Roberts is a superb photographer whose work on a huge Amazon warehouse has just gone viral.  The following post is taken from his blog It’s a thought provoking read. Thanks Ben for allowing us to re-publish it here!

Over the last week or so, my series ‘Amazon Unpacked‘ has gone viral. The photographs were made to accompany an article researched and written for the Financial Times Weekend Magazine by Sarah O’Connor. The magazine came out at the start of February, and I put the gallery up on my website a week later.

The viral spread was kicked off about a week ago, with a feature on Its Nice That. Next, it showed up on the Phaidon homepage; Phaidon also featured it on their subscriber mailout, and before too long the photographs were on all manner of blogs- HighSnobiety, Juxtapoz, Fubiz, Brainstorm9 and countless other blogs, facebook pages and tumblr sites.


Some of the various websites that reproduced my ‘Amazon Unpacked’ photographs


Now I’m no stranger to this phenomenon. Its happened to some of my other photographs and features. So what, I hear you asking, is the point of this blog post? Well I guess I just want to raise a few issues and ask some questions about this kind of appropriation, and how this practice affects the content creator. Here goes – first of all, a quick list of things that concern me…


1. None of the blogs in question (not a single one…) thought to contact me before taking my photographs and publishing them under their own branding.

2. All of the blogs then proceeded to post some of my photographs on facebook – we all know what facebook’s T&C’s are like for photographers.

3. Most of the blogs published 8-12 of my images from a set of 13, reducing the need for their audience to seek out the original article on the FT, or my website.

4. All of the blogs are effectively commercial ventures, with employees. Some of them are owned by media agencies or publishing companies.

5. The vast reproduction of my images across the internet has most likely reduced my syndication chances massively, taking away the potential for future income from these photographs.


Second up – the positives:


1. All of the blogs were careful to attribute the photographs correctly and provide links back to my website. I had to contact It’s Nice That and request that they also credit Sarah O’Connor from the FT. Most subsequent blogs did the same, suggesting that the ‘source’ of the viral sets the tone for how it is then presented.

2. There is no doubt that it has spread my name over a far wider range of viewers than I could ever hope to reach myself. To a certain extent this is good; however its hard to know whether there will be long term benefits from this. Also, while its great that the photographs are being seen, by being so removed from the original article, they have become more like eye candy as opposed to being inextricably linked to Sarah O’Connors excellent contextual article. This is a shame.


So…. I guess this blog post sits somewhere on the fence; it’s an attempt to try to understand how ‘new media’ works, and what is right or wrong. I’ve got no doubt that the editors or these blogs have good intentions – while the bottom line is maintaining traffic to their own platforms, they are fans of the content that they appropriate and genuinely believe that the exposure that they bring to the artists featured is of great benefit. This isn’t without truth, but I think that for photographers at least, things could be done better. Maybe I am an idealist or delusional, but here’s what I would like to happen:


1. Blog author/editor contacts me and asks to feature my photographs.

2. I say yes, and we agree on 2-3 images being used, with contextual captions, correct attribution, and links to the original features.

3. Everyone’s happy. They get their feature and eye candy, making sure that traffic remains high to their website and their advertising revenue is secure. I get widespread ‘exposure’ and traffic to my website, yet I still retain some exclusive content meaning the feature still has some value for resale.


Finally, a big question – in the age of sharing and the viral nature of the internet, where does one draw the line between ‘fair use’ and ‘theft’?


To conclude, when it comes to this kind of blog feature, somewhere down the middle would work for me. The only one of the aforementioned blogs who really got things right was Phaidon – they used 4 images, did their research about me and my work, provided extensive link backs to the source material, and even talked about the context and content of the images. Perhaps its because they are an ‘old school’ publishing house who have retained some traditional journalistic values to accompany their more contemporary front of house? They still didn’t contact me first though!

Anyway – all food for thought. I’d be interested to hear of other peoples experiences; how you have dealt with similar situations?



Author — duckrabbit

duckrabbit is a production company formed by radio producer/journalist Benjamin Chesterton and photographer David White. We specialize in digital storytelling.

Discussion (9 Comments)

  1. “Finally, a big question – in the age of sharing and the viral nature of the internet, where does one draw the line between ‘fair use’ and ‘theft’?”

    I’m tempted to say – ‘at the point where they refuse to pay your invoice.’

    But I’m only half joking. If it amounts to literally hijacking most of your content and rebranding it then there’s a strong case for an invoice.

    As a frequent poster (here) I try to NOT use more than a single image, brief text quote, full attribution(s) (which can sometimes be complex as on a recent post), and some sense of the original context/co-authors, and occasionally if I feel I need more than that will contact the author directly. And when I have done so ALL have graciously agreed to allow reproduction.

    I guess the difference is between signposting the route to the original work, and virtually copying for one’s own benefit. In the latter situation, I’d consider sending an invoice.

  2. I suggest registering your images with the US copyright office ASAP (this can be done after publication) . After a particular image of mine went viral, I found that media organisations responded well to the words “ifringement” and “statutory damages”. Personal blogs seemed impossible to go after, but for profit companies and regular press knew they had not obtained the right to use the image and it would be costly to fight copyright and they woud loose for an image that was registered. For me I found it well worth the paperwork and $35 handling fee.

  3. Adam Welz says:

    This is theft, plain and simple. It’s also just bloody rude of them not to ask permission to reproduce the images.

    1) Take screengrabs of all the online uses, i.e. keep proof of all the infringements.
    2) Register the images at the US Copyright Office – be sure to register them as *published* images!
    3) Get busy writing invoices. Fredrik’s advice re words like “statutory damages” is good.

    Good luck!

  4. Michelle says:

    As a writer (I also take my own pics), my stories get copied a lot and re-posted but hopefully with correction attribution to the original place that published it (and paid me) while including my name. I have yet to be paid 2x for the same article. I wish. My main hope is being credited from the original publisher who is part of my official portfolio. I write for IPS (Inter Press Service) which has a lot of media partners and requires listing them as the copyright holder. Usually that happens. No one ever ask me for permission, but then again, that is not required by IPS, nor do I have a blog with contact details.

  5. Uchujin says:

    I had a very similar experience a few months ago with a series of photographs.

    Reblogged everywhere without even one of them asking me and with several not even bothering to credit me.

    Some of them were BIG commercial blogs run by camera/photography companies who refused to reply to my emails and invoices.

    Ultimately the position I have ended up at is that if the site in question makes money, then to use without asking and offering a nominal fee is just plain theft.

    As I say on my site, “do you get paid for your job? then don’t ask for my work for free”

    Smaller non-commercial blogs (zero advertising) who are just fans of the work and want to share is flattering but should also be prefaced with at least an email IMHO.

    This is a difficult area in which the goal posts are moving constantly and warrants further discussion and an attempt to come up with some kind of code of conduct that protects photographers (and other creatives) work but allows for the sharing that most of us also take part in on a daily basis on twitter etc (tho not on facebook for me…..evil evil EVIL 😉

    (same comment left on ben’s blog)

  6. Oliver says:

    On multiple occasions I’ve had arguments over twitter/email with published magazines, and often had to threaten them with legal action before they take myself and my team (of photographers) seriously.

    It’s disgusting, I work as an editor and digital producer, and I understand the commercial constraints. I work for a commercial cable company, and the resources around music artists are often stretched thin, but it’s pure laziness not to search for the original source of the work.

    It’s tough on platforms like Facebook and Tumblr to gain a foothold, but then again, if you choose to use those platforms to publish your work, you’re the one putting yourself at risk.

    I think it’s also important to include copyright in EXIF Data. ~ Atleast it shows where the photos are coming from, and registering your photos with tracking services all help.

    In the end though the most important thing is knowing your rights, and what you can do to protect your IP. And educating clients so they understand what they can and can’t do.

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