The new problem of 'photonapped' images online

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

It's the real thing.

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.

In the case of the photo used in the Virgin campaign, the photographer put it on a part of Flickr called "Creative Commons" that allowed the photos to be used with proper credit. When the company was first sued by the 15-year-old's family, it said it had done nothing wrong.

Why are companies so eager to use these photos? It could be that with the advent of social networking and photo sharing, they assume that if it's posted online, it's OK to use (it isn't; more on that later). Or maybe they are trying to save a few bucks, but that's probably only a concern for companies with tiny ad budgets. Hardly an issue for Microsoft or Virgin.

No, what these big companies want is what every consumer wants: authenticity – the real thing.

On the website about their new book "Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want" (, coauthors Joe Pine and James Gilmore put it this way: "[I]n a world increasingly filled with deliberately and sensationally staged experiences – an increasingly unreal world – consumers choose to buy or not buy based on how real they perceive an offering to be. Business today, therefore, is all about being real. Original. Genuine. Sincere. Authentic."

One of the big reasons that Flickr, MySpace, and Facebook are so popular is that their audiences and users believe that the people who appear on these websites are real.

In a world where reality TV is scripted, people are so desperate for something genuine that Hillary Clinton can squeak out a victory in New Hamp­shire with the help of an apparently genuine emotional moment that lasted all of 10 seconds. Companies trying to tap into the public's demand for authenticity have found social networking sites to be a great new source of "real" content.

But that doesn't mean they get to use it for free or without asking first.

If an advertising agency asks to use your photo, you can decide whether to grant permission. Some agencies have set fees for using photos; some may be willing to negotiate. But before you say yes, find out how the picture will be used. And remember: Once it's out there, it never goes away.

But if you do post photos online, all photographers own the rights to their work. There are a few cases where photos can be used by anyone (parody or satire, or at least that's what the Supreme Court has said in the past).

But even when you put your photos in areas of a social networking site that says "You can use this," you still have to be given credit. It even says in the Flickr community guidelines: "Respect the copyright of others. This means don't steal photographs that other people have taken and pass them off as your own."

Big corporations should take notice.

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