When one copyrighted photo is being used in countless publications without photographer’s consent… Jacob Roskam shares the story about the long way he went through to claim his image copyrights. He also talks about how he set up a cooperation with PhotoClaim to protect his photos.  

©Jacob Roskam

Back in June 1992, I had to photograph a promotional hot-air balloon for a client. ‘Unique Uitzend Bureau’ in the Netherlands. The balloon was one of the very biggest in the country and would feature during a large annual Balloon Fiesta near the small city of Joure in the Northern province of Friesland. I spent a few days there – photographed not only that majestic Balloon but also the entire ambience with close to a hundred hot air balloons – almost 24 hours a day. The organisation of the Balloon Fiesta caught the smell of a ‘top photographer’ in town (bear in mind that even in those day professional photographers were seen as magicians) and engaged me if I wanted to take some extra photos. They offered me a free balloon flight and organised a helicopter. It was all very casual and friendly. No talk about photo usage or so. They ordered a large series of photo prints and I gave them a friendly print-pricing in exchange for their friendly support to photograph the Balloons and especially my client’s Balloon.

The year went by – it became 1993 and at some point, in April, I came across a flyer at a local tourist office advertising the 1993 Joure Balloon Fiesta with… one of my top photos featuring on the front of the flyer! Hmm… That was not the agreement, folks.

That weekend I went immediately over to Joure to see what else they might have done with my photo – it was a nice sunny weekend and the 130 m drive was a pleasant trip. In Joure, I could not believe my eyes – my photo was plastered all over town: on posters, banners and on the front page of a special Fiesta ‘News Paper’.

I went to the Balloon Fiesta promotional office and found ‘the friendly boss’ – a local real estate agent. Like all Real Estate agents most friendly… I brought the extensive use of my photo forward and he said something like: ’Great advertising for your Jaap!’. ’Yeah sure Wietse – I said – if only my name had been under every photo….’. ’Oh sorry the printer forgot it. We really told him.’

I decided not to waste any more of my time and asked for estimated usage numbers. My photo had been reproduced for about 2 million times. It appeared on the flyer, a dedicated Fiesta ‘News Paper’, a souvenir postcard, advertising banners, and press kits for the media. Who knew where else?

Over the years I had used the Dutch BURAFO recommended pricing (an institute that supports the photographers with legal advice and annual price lists). Based on that calculated I could charge – if I remember well – at least dfl 3500 if they had contacted me before publishing. But now it was an infringement and by Dutch jurisprudence, I could triple that plus expenses. So the sum became well over 10000, I thought. But because we had had such a friendly relationship I wanted to be friendly and since I made very, very good money those days (I was indeed quite famous) I asked as a one-off payment a mate-rates settlement of dfl 2500 . To be paid in 8 days – if not paid in 8 days I would consider legal action with a recalculation based on real usage. Fuming, the Real Estate called me and asked if I was out of my mind and hung up.

I had been told in a nearby town lived an old copyright specialist lawyer. Made an appointment and we got on like old friends. He was an avid amateur photographer and knew my work. He was well in his 80s – a skinny tall man with many interesting stories to share. He asked me to leave all evidence with him and he would call me back in a week. He did and invited me to his stately office again. He said ‘in all my years of copyright law practise I never came across such a flagrant infringement’. They deliberately tried to cut you short, they bullied you even after the kindest offer you could possibly make. We are going for the top prize! ‘BUT…’ I asked carefully – ‘what will that cost me?’ – looking around in his very large office in his own mini palace. He said ’I have had many well-paid cases as you can see, I do not need to get rich from a young enthusiast photographer and I know you helped others when short of cash’. How did he know? He worked for national television studios and such. ‘How about 10 % with a maximum of DFL 2500….. ‘ – ‘Sure – deal!’He said: ‘we are going to sue him for DFL 55000 to start with – most likely we will settle for half.’ The experience was talking!

After quite some bickering back and forth between lawyer and defendants, the case went to court – by Dutch law the case had to appear in front of the full bench of the Friesland, Court in the City of Leeuwarden because the defendant lives in that province and the sum asked was quite large. I would come with my own transport and the Lawyer, Mr Van Santbrink, would come by his own means.

Unfortunately, I had troubles with my car engine and arrived 15 minutes late. The case had just opened and Mr Van Santbrink was already talking in front of the bench. He looked a bit angry at me, stopped his talk and quickly asked what happened? ’Engine trouble‘. – So you really need money for a new car then?!

I will never ever forget him standing in court. An impressive, very old, tall man, standing straight upright, wearing his old grey and red robe – he was clearly impressing the judges’ panel – ‘he owned the court’. The defendants were shrinking by the minute.

After both parties had shared their thoughts the Judges ordered both parties to ‘convene in chambers’ and try to reach a satisfactory settlement. We had 15 minutes before the court would re-open.

We settled at DFL 25000, now still a big sum, but back then in 1993 – a gigantic sum. I bought a new car! Mr Van Santbrink lived another 10 years and passed away at about age 97 if I am correct – he never stopped practising law until his last days. I still have contact with his son.

The case made me realise that my pictures might get stolen again without me knowing about it. I also knew that in case of another infringement, I would not be able to regain the money I deserve without professional help. I began my online research to find out the options. Soon I stumbled upon PhotoClaim and thought: ’Give it a try, they look energetic!’ New idea – it radiated confidence in own strength. It did not take me long to start appreciating their personal approach that no other similar service offered me so far. Having my photographs regularly monitored by PhotoClaim, I can focus on taking new pictures without worrying that someone else might be taking advantage of my work.

©Jacob Roskam

It was / is quite rare to have all balloons fully raised at the same moment. They move back and forth quite a bit when stationary – the hot air and wind really make them unstable. And – unlike those days with nearly endless sensor sensitivity / fast shutter-speeds / endless exposures – the old film cameras did not allow such advantages. Everything was slow and you had only one or two changes. Ironically, the hot air balloon of my client is not even in this image.

Jacob Roskam

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