Image Theft. Is this something you have ever thought about? Maybe it is something that has affected you personally or maybe it is something you were completely unaware that was a problem.
As a working professional landscape photographer, food gets put on my table through my photography and image theft is therefore something I take very seriously. It is also something that is on the rise and I felt it was worth doing a blog on the matter, in particular relating to one case where I decided to pursue my losses through the courts. Read on to find out how I dealt with this and if I won…
I have noticed that image theft is getting more and more commonplace, almost socially acceptable. In 2018 it felt like at least once a month I was finding someone was using my images for some kind of commercial benefit to their business. It actually becomes tiresome and a lot of work to deal with each theft. The responses can vary, you can have someone completely apologetic and removes the offending image straight away (although they may have already received the benefit), you can get the play ignorant kind, the cheeky kind and the nasty kind. Every once in a while a company may even agree to pay for their errors.
As I mentioned, last year I had a number of image thefts. Some of the highlights included a company (solo businessman) called Grand Union Jack taking my images and Photoshopping them into an abstract art style poster which took multiple attempts to resolve and get removed from Etsy. This guy had made real money from my hard work just by sitting behind his computer. Other’s include small business using my images, sometimes ironically I would spot them when they came up as a Sponsored Advert on Facebook.
The one I want to talk about most though is probably the worst case of image theft I have had from a company called TheRoomBook Ltd. The theft actually happened in 2017 but the process of court went into 2018. I’m now writing my account of the dealings to a) highlight the issues with image theft b) to help other photographer’s who may be in the same position make an informed choice of how to proceed.
So, where did it start? Well in July 2017, a good friend of mine who frequents the Lake District dropped me a message to say he had spotted one of my photos of Fleetwith Pike in a book in a hotel. Why would he mention this? I often have paid for photos in magazines and books and it is commonplace, so why would he think to message me? Well, he remembered the photo as he suggested the location to me for a wild camp many years ago and he just had a suspicion that the photo wasn’t authorised. Here is the photo for your reference:
I looked into it, checked my stock sales etc as I didn’t remember selling the photo at any point and sure enough I hadn’t. I then emailed Gordon Radcliffe, director of TheRoomBook Ltd to see if he had evidence of purchase. I had noticed that the image that was printed had actually cropped my watermark out of the photo from the bottom left hand corner of the image. This was a clear indicator that the image was stolen and in fact a low-res copy, however I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Gordon responded to me saying he can assure me that all his photos were legally sourced, usually through the council but always with permission. If the image had been used without permission it was down to an ex-employee graphic designer who left the previous year. He was willing to give credit or a free-advert in one of his publications. He also commented on how he was a small-business trying to make ends meet.
A free-advert would be of no use to me. While I often visit the Lake District it is not where I focus my work and therefore there was no commercial sense in this so it was time to talk monetary value.
It is also very important to note that Gordon’s excuse of it was his old graphic designer is invalid. As a publisher, you cannot have a scapegoat. It is the responsibility of the publisher to check and verify everything is above board and legal. You accept responsibility for any content you publish and must be responsible for any copyright infringements.
I responded to let Gordon know this information and also highlighted that I was a self-employed photographer who runs his own small business and that for that reason alone I couldn’t let him use his “small business” excuse with me as he clearly hadn’t thought about the impact he would have had on me. At this point I had researched further and found that the image was used in 13 different books, so this equates to 13 individual uses. The format was fairly standard in each book but the rules of rights-managed licenses dictates that it has been used 13 times (after all they make more money the more books he gets out there of course).
I have attached a screen-shot example from the PDF’s they had on their website until late 2018. You can see how the image was used and it’s very hard to spot but I assure you it’s cropped.
At this point I felt I had no option but to invoice TheRoomBook Ltd. I had spoken to a few other photographer’s and was advised to invoice and agree to lower the amount if the invoice was paid within 14 days, to save the possibility of court fees and time. I invoiced £800 with the clause of reducing to £500 if paid within 14 days. Even at £800, this equates to around £61.50 per book usage which is very reasonable. A lot of photographer’s would happily charge £800 per book! However, it is not for me to justify the price. I offer my work for sale and I set the price, as a company you can approach me and we can negotiate the price if needs be but I set the value of my work as there is no industry standard. I charge fairly and take into account what it will be used for. The way I view it is if you do want my work then you pay for it, you may be able to get another image from a cheap stock website such as ShutterStock but it won’t be my image and I won’t devalue my work because of that.
Which brings me on to the next part. I signed off my email with the invoice and the terms saying I would have to follow up with legal proceedings if they did not pay. Moments later I recieved a phone call from Gordon of TheRoomBook Ltd who was very irate and aggressive. The problem with phone calls is there is no way to prove in a court of law who said what. It’s a he said she said situation. Over a year later I can’t remember it word for word but he was very aggressive saying I was completely ridiculous and that he will not be paying the invoice. He said he can get one image off a stock agency for a few quid (see above) and that there was no way he would pay it. He continued to blame his old graphic designer (which I pointed out again the above points) and that if I took him to court he knew how to play the system and would win. Eventually he slammed the phone down on me and we came to an impasse. The main thing that stuck out to me is he said he knew how to play the system and knew at that moment he had been in a similar situation before.
I quickly followed up with an email to him to try and put everything in writing:
Following on from our phone conversation today I am putting in writing my intentions. I will also post a copy of this out as a letter via recorded delivery.
We came to an impasse on the phone and it is clear you are not willing to pay the invoice requested with an offer of £50 not being acceptable. Therefore, I am still allowing you your 14 days to pay the £500 as requested, should this not be paid then I will expect the full £800 by the time 28 days are up. If the invoice isn’t paid then I will issue legal proceedings via the small claims court to recover monies, this may also result in your company receiving a CCJ hindering future prospects. You may be aware of the court process as you said on the phone but providing your company isn’t liquidated by that time then I strongly believe the court will be in favour of myself, the case is simple, my image was stolen by The Room Book Ltd and was not paid for.
Further to this, should the lower amount not be paid in 14 days then I will contact each of the hotels where you have provided books with my image in. I will inform them that they are currently holding items with stolen property in it, how they choose to move forward is up to them but I’m guessing they won’t take a light view on theft and may wish to disassociate with your company. I may also choose to speak to some of your advertisers as well.
I believe that the amount I have requested is completely fair, as I said before it covers usage and damages. Most photographer’s would charge more from the conversations I have had so far. I am not a hobbyist photographer but a full-time professional landscape photographer who takes theft of his images very seriously as this directly impacts my way of life.
I also appreciate you saying that your business is struggling to stay afloat, however you have never considered my position and the way it affects me and at the end of the day to analogise it, a homeless person couldn’t steal from a shop and it become legal.
I have already started preparing documents and evidence, taking screen shots of all the books my image is in as well as getting the links, so there is no point in removing them. I also have pictures of the printed copies. These will all be passed to the small claims court should it come to it.
I look forward to hopefully resolving this in due course.”
Gordon of TheRoomBook Ltd responded again saying he wouldn’t be paying the invoice and that he had made a loss on that book. Again this was a person who clearly didn’t care about my well being, but only his own. There is nothing that will rile me more than someone pleading poverty after stealing from me. In hindsight, it may have been a bit strong to threaten to contact the hotels and is something I didn’t follow up with but I put this after receiving advice off people to do so. TheRoomBook Ltd threatened to sue for deformation if I did so in any wrong kind of light. I will come back to this later.
At this point I had already spent quite a bit of time, emailing, documenting, phone calls, screen-shotting etc. I was already feeling stressed. I gave TheRoomBook Ltd the 28 days I promised to pay the invoice and then on principle decided to proceed with the small-claims court to try and recover monies owed. During the 28 days I had also found out many more images in the publications were stolen from other photographer’s and I had the option of teaming up with them to take TheRoomBook Ltd to court. I decided not to in the end and fly solo but it should highlight that Gordon of TheRoomBook Ltd should have really figured his costs for the publications were much lower than usual.
The court process is long-winded and drawn out. Not to mention confusing and not very easy to follow. Essentially you pay a fee to take your matter to the court through Gov.UK who then try and deal with your claim on your behalf presenting it to the defendant. This cost me £60. That was £60 I would potentially never see again and was more than TheRoomBook Ltd had offered me at this point. This should show how strongly I felt in this case and I wanted to make a stand for my rights and out of principle. If presenting a claim you must have issued a warning to the defendant in the first instance to give them chance to resolve. Quite often the threat of legal action will be enough to make them pay. If they don’t pay you then submit your evidence and pay your fee and await the defendant to respond. They can accept the claim and pay the monies owed plus the court fee, the benefit of this is they will not receive a CCJ. Some companies may choose to pay at this point or others may decide to let it go to court to roll the dice and let the judge decide. Of course, if you are a company that is struggling to stay afloat you may also choose this method to stall, after all if you go into liquidation it makes no difference anyway.
Unfortunately for me, TheRoomBook Ltd repudiated the claim, defending their actions even though they admitted they used the image without permission and was willing to take it further. At this point you get offered the chance of mediation, which is a free service designed for an independent third party to mediate on both the claimants and defendants behalf and come to some form of agreement rather than taking it to court. This is optional for both parties and your choice should have no bearing on the outcome in court if it goes to that. I decided to accept mediation to show willing and try and come to a resolution, initially TheRoomBook Ltd also agreed to this and a date for a phone call was set. The phone call would only be with the mediator, not the defendant I should point out.
Closer to the date of the mediation, I got a letter to inform me that it had been cancelled as the defendant no longer wanted to choose this path. I have a feeling that TheRoomBook Ltd had just been stalling for time at this point. This meant that the claim had to go to court to be seen before a judge. It was now January 2018, 5 months after I had initially contacted TheRoomBook Ltd, so you can see it isn’t a quick process. What I hadn’t realised was that the initial £60 for the claim was just to present the claim, there would be a further fee of £80 to take it to court. It wasn’t made clear at any point that there would be further fees unless you really scrutinise all the forms.
Begrudgingly having got this far I duly paid the fee and waited to hear for a court date. Now I was down £140. The court date was set as 03rd April 2018. That is 9 months after I had initially contacted TheRoomBook Ltd and 8 months after I initially submitted my claim to the courts. TheRoomBook Ltd had until the 19th March 2018 to submit his full defence otherwise the claim would be vacated and I would win by default. I also had to submit my own evidence. Submitting my own evidence was again quite stressful, it took me over half a day of collating all the information, making sure I had screen shots and links etc and then sending it off to the court. By the 19th he hadn’t submitted his evidence and I assumed he had given up or the company had gone under. I followed up with the court who extended his deadline by 7 days to which he submitted his defence. I wasn’t made aware at the time I should have received a copy of his defence before attending court.
April the 3rd came, I did a rare thing and put on trousers, shirt, tie and shoes…something you don’t regularly need in my field of work. I turned up to Chesterfield County Court and went to the waiting area. This was the first time I had been to court and I was nervous. One of the things that struck me was the fact that the waiting area is open and you could be sat right next to the person you are taking to court. A side of the system I really think needs updating. I had a vague idea of what Gordon looked like from his Facebook profile and couldn’t see anyone like him around.
We were late into court. That didn’t help my nerves and I went in before the judge, standing, waiting to be seated. My girlfriend had come with me for support but had to wait outside. I noticed the defendants chair was empty and the judge asked me to sit.
The judge explained the proceedings and was very professional. He found out that I hadn’t received the defendants defence and read it out to me, pretty much conveying what TheRoomBook Ltd had already said but he also said that I was aggressive towards him in our phone conversation. He said he couldn’t turn up to court as he could not afford the costs to make it. What the judge did was ignore all the diversion tactics and got straight into the nitty gritty. I was impressed he had read the file and understood the story. He had taken time to see all the examples and very quickly pointed out that the usage was never contended by TheRoomBook Ltd and therefore a price needed to be agreed. He asked me if I was willing to negotiate, which I said I was and worked out at 13 uses at roughly £38.46 which was less than the RoomBookLtd had agreed to pay initially (remember they offered £50 for usage) then it would be £500 for the usage. He asked if that would be acceptable but was very frank in saying that it was unlikely I would ever see the money. He said he would write the order and gave the defendant 28 days to pay. The total was £640 including court fees.
I walked away proud, knowing I had won and stuck up for my principles to the tune of £140. At the very least I had caused TheRoomBook Ltd a headache. If they didn’t pay within 28 days then I had further options to recover the money.
Of course the money never came. I had a quick look at my options and it was a mine field. The logical choice was to apply for a writ to transfer my court order to the high court as the amount was over £600, this meant I could send in a high court enforcement officer (aka bailiff) to retrieve my money. The cost of this was £66 plus the bailiffs fee. I rung a company who dealt with enforcement and they quickly looked up the address and said it looked unlikely that they would be able to retrieve anything, a very honest approach!
Only now am I writing this blog that I realise that the CCJ isn’t applied to the defendant automatically. You have to have the order enforced by the county court (assuming you don’t go to the high court) which is another £77 who will then order the money to be paid directly to the court. You can quickly see who really loses in these situations can’t you?
In honesty, after looking into the high court, my life got extremely busy with a lot of things and dealing with this became too stressful to think about. It came to December 2018 and I gave it some more serious thought on whether to pursue again. I knew I still had the option of the high court enforcement officer which was £66 plus £90 fee for the bailiff. As the business was registered at a business premises, the officer would have authority to enter without permission unlike a residential address. I went on to TheRoomBook Ltd’s website and saw they were still surprisingly trading. At that time, my images were still being used (however at the time of writing they have been refreshed for new books). I noticed at the bottom of the website the business name had changed to Cover 2 Cover Ltd but trading as TheRoomBook TM. I checked companies house and Cover 2 Cover Ltd now existed and was actually founded before the court date. However TheRoomBook LTD was still showing as active and trading. Read into that what you will.
At this point I just decided it wasn’t worth any more of my time and money. At £156 to chance it when the likelihood is that any assets will have been transferred, I knew I was probably just going to lose more. Not to mention the £90 fee for the bailiffs is per time they turn up. Of course all my costs would be covered if they were successful but I doubt they would be.
So, did I win? Well you tell me! I feel like I did right in standing up for myself and my principles in trying to regain my money but commonsense has to come into play at some point and that point is now. I decided the best thing I could do is write a blog on my experience and with a bit of luck, anyone Googling the company may come across this blog and think twice about using them. I feel I can also now write this blog as everything above is factual and therefore no slander can come into play. This leads me on to a point I made earlier about contacting the hotels, this is an option I still have, just stating the facts. It may impact TheRoomBook LTD and cost them more than I lost, who knows? Is it worth it? I’m not sure any more. I’d love to hear your further thoughts.
Finally, for any photographer’s out there, it is always worth standing up for your rights. Going forward, I will deal with each image theft on a case by case basis. I’ll keep my cards close to my chest with what I’ll ultimately do as I don’t want to give away my rule book to any potential thieves. However, I hope the blog has been useful.