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Famous Cases of Stolen Photos You Have Never Heard About Before

This article was originally published on January 17, 2019


In the era of wide access to all kinds of information, content and data, somehow it became a common practice to steal images without thinking about the consequences. In the history of copyright infringement, there were a couple of cases which became quite popular all around the world. Curious what kind of iconic photos were stolen? Let’s find out!


The history of copyright dates to ancient times. You can read more about it here.  Over the course of the years, there have been a couple of different approaches towards the ownership of works of art, including photographs. However, even though the Berne Convention was already introduced a long time ago, the photos are still being stolen. Let’s focus on some of the cases which gained a widespread media coverage and shed some more light on the unlawful practice of using photos and the entire spectrum of details concerning the copyright law.



Street photography always raises some controversies. How to take a picture and not offend anyone? What about intimacy and crossing certain borders? In one famous case, a Hasidic Jew argued that a picture taken of him might have violated the Torah Commandment against graven images This case brought an explicit answer to some of these questions and all of the doubts were soon cleared. It was Philip Lorca diCorcia who has created an exhibition called ’Heads‘ at the Pace/Mac Gill Gallery in New York City. The exhibition gathered a lot of positive reviews and was treated as an eye-opener. Unfortunately, not everyone was truly optimistic about the pictures. Erno Nussenzweig, an Orthodox Jew who saw his picture in the gallery, immediately called his lawyer. The unsatisfied Jew sued the photographer for religious and privacy reasons, but he actually had no right to do so. The practice of street photography in the U.S. has been around for quite some time already. Photographs taken on the street can be displayed and published as an artistic item without the subject’s permission. The ethics of the profession states that it is always polite to ask for permission, but it is not obligatory.



You have probably heard about Vivian Maier, didn’t you? Yes, the nanny whose negatives of surprising artistic quality were found quite a while after her death. It was John Maloof who has acquired and published her pictures but it did not take long for David. C Deal, a lawyer and photographer, who, as Maier’s closest living relative, claimed copyright of the published images. Maloof made a classic mistake –  purchasing the negatives does not equal acquiring the copyright. There was a settlement approved between Maloof and The Estate of Vivian Mayer which entitled him to sell the images in order to – as the judge claimed – ’preserve her legacy‘.

© Hayk Shalunts
(C) © Hayk Shalunts


Copyright does not only protect the exact image but also its general style, colours which make the final look and feel of a picture. It was a shot taken by Jonathon Mannion, the photographer whose lens defined hip-hop, which brought it to light. Mannion took an iconic image of an American basketball player Kevin Garnett for a popular basketball magazine called SLAM. The magazine has been in the circulation since 1994 and the image must have been seen by a lot of readers. It did not take long though for the beer brand Coors to recreate the photo and use it for a LA billboard advertisement. Once identified, the case was brought to court which ruled in favour of the photographer. The way the main subject was interpreted and recreated in concise with the timing cleared all the potential doubts – there were too many similarities between the two pictures. This case was supposed to make the advertising industry more careful when creating commercials and marketing campaigns based on iconic images.



Another issue which goes hand in hand with copyright is fair use. We have explained its relation in regard to copyright here, now here comes a perfect time to talk more about a certain example when fair use was used as a counterargument. It was the artist Richard Prince who used a significant number of unlicensed pictures for his artistic project called ’Canal Zone‘. According to the court’s first decision, his work was treated as an illegal practice. But the Second Circuit brought a slightly different outcome and voted in the artist’s favour of the artist, not the photographer whose pictures were used. The images were found transformative enough not to be treated as an infringement but fair use. The judge’s final decision was to order Prince to destroy his works which resulted in a protest among other artists. As an outcome of the entire case,  a thicker line between commercial art and digital media was created.



Social media profiles also tend to raise a lot of controversies and cause problems in terms of unlawful practices of image theft. You cannot use a picture just because you found it somewhere online but not everybody knows this. There was an interesting case in which a company who has been in the imagining industry for quite some time already, Getty Images, took Daniel Morel’s photos of the 2010 Haiti earthquake from his Twitter account and sold it. According to Twitter’s policy, images can be posted and retweeted but never used commercially. It was quite a costly lesson for Getty Images. Despite this famous case, there is still a lot of people who believe that copyright no longer applies once work is posted on social media which is surely not the case.



It seems that, currently, graphics and images are driving marketing and sales. Every company or private entrepreneur needs some visual content. Hiring a photographer and setting up a photo shoot requires quite some time, effort and money which still does not excuse the practice of stealing images. Are you a photographer? If yes, are you aware of the scale of copyright infringement? Have you thought about checking if your photos might have been used without your permission? Not sure how to start the investigation? Let us monitor the vast ocean of the Internet for you. We will do it for free. Register with PhotoClaim and regain the money from your copyrights!

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