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.