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The new problem of 'photonapped' images online

In the hunt for 'authenticity,' some companies are using photos from social networking sites in ad campaigns.

By Tom ReganColumnist / January 16, 2008

It's the real thing.

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No, I'm not talking about Coca-Cola. I'm talking about that goofy photo of yourself taken at your uncle's birthday party and uploaded to Flickr, the online photo-sharing site. Or maybe it's that snapshot of your daughters cavorting at the beach.

You and your family are the "real thing." And maybe that's why so many companies (particularly big corporations) are so eager to get their hands on these photos that they seem to be using them without permission.

Case in point: A 15-year-old girl from Dallas discovered that a photo of her at a youth car wash posted on Flickr was later used in an advertising campaign by Virgin Mobile in Australia. The photo was not displayed in a flattering way. She was portrayed as the dorky pen pal that Virgin wanted you to dump in favor of its text-messaging service. She only discovered she has been "photonapped" when a friend sent her a copy of the ad.

A recent article in the Washington Post offered the example of Niall Kennedy, who had taken some pictures at a technology convention only to see one appear, without proper crediting, on a Microsoft-run blog. He wrote to Microsoft asking for an explanation. When none came, he solved the problem by switching the photo the blog had been linked to with another that featured a guy mooning the camera. Microsoft removed the photo in 15 minutes and the blogger who had originally posted his work without credit apologized.

It's hard to ignore the hypocrisy here. Large corporations protect their copyrights in a manner that can only be described as ferocious. A few years ago, I met a guy whose job was to drive around his state making sure that when someone ordered a Coke in a restaurant, the staff didn't serve Pepsi instead.

"I've had audits where Microsoft has sent people to verify that I have copyrights for the software running on each employee's computer," Mr. Kennedy told the Post. "This is a company that goes after copyright violators with the assumption of guilty until proven innocent."

It's an old problem in a new wrapper: New technology always raises legal questions about the way the content they create is used. In this case, it's not the problem but the source of the problem that makes it interesting. Social networking sites, combined with broadband or wireless Internet access, mean that anyone can share any photo from anywhere.