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Iran Watson Takes Action Against Map Maker for Flickr® Infringement

Published: 05/02/2014
By: larry

IranWatsonJoel Rothman sent me a press release recently describing the suit that he is representing Iran Watson in federal court in Atlanta and Iran gave me permission to use the infringed photo (to the right). It's an interesting story that I thought PFRE readers would be interested in. Here is the press release:

ATLANTA -- One February evening in Atlanta, with clear skies and temperatures in the 40s, Atlanta area real estate and architectural photographer Iran Watson set up his camera in the park opposite the iconic Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel. As the sun set and streetlights came on, Watson captured Atlanta’s famous cylindrical tower shimmering in the twilight.

Watson showed off the image on his Flickr® Photostream with a digital watermark that read “Iran Watson Photo 2011.” Watson also identified the picture as being copyrighted with all rights reserved in the Flickr® licensing dialog, which meant that third-parties who wanted to use the photograph were required to obtain Watson’s permission first.

Two years later, Watson entered an Atlanta area convenience store and was surprised to see his photo emblazoned on the cover for the Atlanta Metro Street Map, published by Kappa Maps Group. Watson also noticed that his watermark was cropped out. The spiral-bound map, used daily by Atlanta real estate agents, house hunters, local officials, and average Atlantans, sells for about $15.

“I never gave permission to Kappa to use my photo or remove my copyright notice,” Watson said. When Watson contacted the publisher, they claimed his photograph was Creative Commons licensed, and did not know what happened to his watermark. “They refused to do anything,” Watson recalled “except they offered me $20 for my photo, but I declined.”

Now, represented by Schneider Rothman IP Law Group, Watson is suing Kappa Map Group in federal court in Atlanta. His claim is for copyright infringement and also Kappa’s removal of Watson’s watermark which is a type of “copyright management information” or CMI. The lawsuit seeks damages and a recall of all Kappa’s infringing maps. No trial date has been set.

“Many publishers fail to realize that cropping out copyright notices, stripping out digital watermarks, and falsely attributing photo credits violate the Copyright Act,” said Joel Rothman, a Schneider Rothman IP Law Group partner. “In fact, CMI violations can be more serious offences than copyright infringement because they entitle the copyright owner to statutory damages and attorneys’ fees,” Rothman added.
Since it was founded, partners Jerold Schneider and Joel Rothman have filed infringement lawsuits for plaintiffs in federal courts in Arizona, Hawaii, Illinois, New York, Florida, and now Georgia. Schneider Rothman IP Law Group often works with other firms on these cases.

“The internet has made it easy for infringers to copy the works of artists, photographers, illustrators, or authors,” Rothman said. “Copyright owners need knowledgeable allies when someone takes their creative work without permission.”

Schneider Rothman IP Law Group takes your intellectual property seriously. Jerold I. Schneider and Joel Rothman, the firm’s board-certified intellectual property lawyers, bring and defend infringement litigation nationwide. They also help owners of intellectual property patent, copyright and trademark their work. The firm entertains contingency and alternative fee arrangements, and helps entrepreneurs and independent inventors monetize their IP. To contact the firm at its Boca Raton, Florida, office, call 561-404-4350 or visit SRIPLAW.COM.

27 comments on “Iran Watson Takes Action Against Map Maker for Flickr® Infringement”

  1. Fortunate he was able to stumble upon the map book. Unfortunate that he uploaded a high resolution, public accessible image for anyone to download. These days if you want to protect your image online unfortunately you need to put a huge watermark right through the middle of the image or in an area that cannot be photoshopped or cropped out and optimize it for the web only. This is the dishonest world we live in and that will never change. This map company like many guilty others adopted the "it's better to ask forgiveness than for permission" policy and are acting like they didn't know any better. The $20 offer is a slap in the face and that insulting offer is almost worse than the offence of actually stealing your image in the first place and for that I hope they learn their lesson in way of Joel compensation!

  2. Good on you Iran for following through on your rights and I hope the court makes them pay accordingly. In my early days I supplied a client with unmarked images for consideration for a proposed project. They declined my quotatiob but without my knowledge they used the web images for over 2 years online. Eventually settled out of court for what is still my biggest single sale. Then would you believe within 3 months they had breached again, so once again I went back to the well. I can tell you if you stick to your guns you can be well compensated.

  3. In my experience in the UK, some estate agents will steal images offline and re-use them.
    Here's how it works. A photographer takes an elevated or interior property image of house X for agent X. Agent X fails to sell property X. Agent Z then takes on property X, finds images online and decides to take his chance.He copies and uses them.
    I have heard all sorts of excuses, "I thought anyone could use them", "We didn't notice the © symbol",
    "As they were in the public domain, we thought we could use them." etc etc.
    Effective Action -
    I take an invoice for images they are using into the agents premises and tell them. Here is my bill for the images you are illegally using to market this property. If this invoice is not paid in 7days i will see you in court.Also, i fully expect you to remove any unpaid images offline until my invoice is settled.
    100% effective!

  4. Boy, I hope that the image was registered. Cropping out the copyright line can often constitute a "willful" infringement which is what kicks in the possibility of being awarded the top prize of $150K per infringement. The number of infringements might be calculated as the number of maps printed…. not sold, but printed. This is why most of these cases get settled out of court. The awards have the possibility of reaching low earth orbit and if the defendant's counsel realizes that the odds are stacked against their client, they will usually recommend taking the best settlement they can negotiate.

    I get chided because I don't post my photos on Flickr. Hmmmmmmmm. I know that several others have had images lifted from Flickr and I have seen images used in newspapers that credit Flickr rather than a named photographer.

    Good Luck, Iran. The image is worth far more than $20!!

  5. @Ken, cropping out the copyright ALWAYS constitutes a willful infringement, and is punishable by fines from $2,500 to $25,000 on top of attorney fees etc. Section 1202 of the U.S. Copyright Act makes it illegal for someone to remove the watermark from your photo so that it can disguise the infringement when used.
    I see folks arguing about not putting a copyright on image uploaded..and that your only protection is to register them...yes they can be removed, just like they were with Iran, but now he has them, since they cannot claim an innocent infringement with the removal. It's a dang shame, we have to go through that though...

  6. WOW, this is absolutely ridiculous. Not only do they get caught with their hand in the cookie jar, but then they basically insult you to your face with a $20 offer? They certainly deserve to be penalized for this blatant theft.

    I love the line, “Many publishers fail to realize that cropping out copyright notices, stripping out digital watermarks, and falsely attributing photo credits violate the Copyright Act....” I'm sure the attorney is trying to be as magananimous as possible when its clear that every publisher on the planet knows full well what the copyright laws are.

    Lesson to be learned: either slap a giant copyright in the middle of the image, or upload only low res images to Flickr. OR upload hi res and hope for a payday from a lawsuit! That third option actually sounds pretty good, but we'll see how Iran's case goes. 🙂

  7. Really disappointed by this story. One of my favorite photographers on this site. Sounds like he has solid representation though. The map company is in for a rude awakening.

  8. Interesting also that you don't see a lot of press (other than in photographer blogs and NAPP magazine) on this issue. I shot an unusual property in the twin city MN area several years ago. I gave permission through the realtor to publish. The picture went viral through the news media. 1 or 2 credited me. Most did not.

  9. Good for you Iran!

    This all brings us back to a few weeks ago when we were discussing copyright, and the importance of registering your copyright. Reality is that if you have a great images out there, somebody is going to try to use it, it's just a matter of time. Case in point, I just collected on the unauthorized use by a magazine of the image that I submitted to last months PFRE contest.

  10. I appreciate the support from everyone and thank you Larry for using your blog to help garner more attention to this case. Truth be told, litigation is always my last resort in matters like this. All my other infringements (and there have been several), have settled with me as soon as they realized they made a mistake. This one was different however. I tried the polite and professional way of asking them to stop using the image and recall all the map books, or compensate me accordingly, but they didn't and I was basically blown off as a nuisance. And the $20 offer... yeah, that was a slap in the face. Im not easily offended but that about did it. I wouldnt have licensed that image for $20 even if they had legitimately approached me with the offer.

    As a publisher, they should know better. All they had to do was a simple Google search and in 5 secs they would have had at least 5 results leading back to the CMI watermarked image. So they were either grossly irresponsible in doing their due diligence in verifying that the images they are using are indeed "free" or they knew exactly what they where doing and just figured they wouldn't get caught. Either way, its copyright infringement and Im calling them on it.

  11. Similar situation with an advertising company.
    My brother-in-law was the Creative art director for a very large NY-international advertising agency. They hired a NYC commercial Photographer to shoot a onetime use magazine or brochure ad for a large camera manufacture. A few months later the photographer missed his train to NYC, and had to drive in. While sitting in traffic, he came across a huge 30 foot billboard with the photograph he shot for the magazine. For some reason without his permission the AD agency printed the billboard, not thinking they would be caught. The photographer called and threatened legal action, so the agency, knowing they were wrong, settled and offered a check for (don’t know the amount) but many thousands of dollars. The Photographer just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

    I think Copywriting is not understood buy most agents and needs to be explained. But a company that prints maps or any other media, is well versed in the law, and just blatantly disregards them in hopes that it will not be found.

  12. That image is absolutely beautiful.

    There's one comment on the Flickr photo asking how many people had to be cloned out. As the question was never answered I find that I too am wondering if the area just so happened to be devoid of people when the photo was taken.

  13. @Brian, a ND filter to allow long enough exposure would remove anyone in the image who wasn't standing still. He might not have had to remove anyone. They would have effectively removed themselves.

  14. @Tim - I usually leave myself some wiggle room in statements about what a judge may decide. I do know that the $150K/violation award is only bestowed in cases where "Willful" infringement can be shown even though you will often see that figure stated many times as a scare tactic. Putting a watermark on a photograph is good practice in general, but depending on the usage, a client may want to license the image without visible notices or credits. In the case of a publishing company, they DO know better and the only way they can get out of a willful offense is to throw a rouge stock agency under the bus by showing that they licensed the image properly and that another entity is to blame. Getty has sold images that they didn't have a right to, but it looks like this case may not fall in that category or the publisher would have presented that answer to the original notice.

    @Iran - I'm glad to read that the image is registered. Are you going to get a new Ferrari or a Tesla? (A bit of humor) I don't like having to go after people either. I'd rather that people were more honest. The fact of the matter is that so few photographers register their work and even fewer will pursue an infringer that it's pretty safe to just grab pictures off the the internet without paying. If more photographer's made the effort to defend their work, more user's would do the right thing. It would be financially prudent to do so.

    Registering photos is so cheap and easy that all photographers (at least professionals) should do it. Most all attorneys that handle copyright issues will take on cases involving registered works on a contingency basis since their fees are recoverable. If they don't collect, you don't pay. That's not to say that they will prosecute every infringement you discover, but if there are deep enough pockets to go after to make the effort worthwhile, it doesn't take much time on the photographer's end. Nearly all cases are settled before trial since an attorney working on contingency only wants to take the job if the case looks clear cut.

  15. forget copyright infringement - these people should be sued for being luddites - who the hell buys paper maps anymore ? google maps anyone ??

    I moving to Atlanta to open up a left handed screw driver shop -

  16. Iran, hope to meet you at the end of this month. I just settled an infringement of my work with a company rather quickly and for way more than $20. I discovered my photo on the first page of their website and they claimed they thought they could use it without a license. It's a bit complicated but when I informed them it was a copyright infringement (not willful at the moment) they quickly agreed to pay for it. This was only 2 weeks ago. I'm still waiting for my payment but I think they will pay as they are still using it on the website. In the event they don't, now it becomes willful infringement and we know how that goes-expensive is the work.

    I hope the map company's attorneys see the light and offer a reasonable settlement. But it's nice to see that you are willing to go the distance if they don't.

    Unfortunately this is becoming all too common.

  17. Copyright matters aside, what I don't understand is publishers taking photos off the Web and using those in print. Unless the photos have been uploaded as high resolution (which you shouldn't normally be doing), any reasonable sized reproduction is going to look terrible when made from a low resolution Web image.

  18. Not to give them cover, but I think PART of the problem is the folks they are using to put these things together. They do a google search for images and grab the best one, even if it has a watermark. Most are kids who unfortunately have the mentality of "If its online, its free to use". I just had the situation with a state agency, where my images were being used. Someone recognised my work and informed me. I contacted the director, and they very quickly removed the images. But it was a case of using uneducated underlings to do the work. ("we just google searched clip art of ??? and they came up we had no idea) Both images had had the watermark removed, so it was a willful infringement, I informed the director, and this was the response ("We take this very seriously and I certainly understand and will have a talk with the staff and is a learning experience for all interns and assistants and will certainly never, ever happen again. Permission will always be sought out on anything. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Again, it will never happen again.") Thankfully mine ended well, with someone who quickly moved to rectify the situation. But it is the attitude of those doing the work, where most of the problem seems to be.

  19. This happens all the time. When I have a bit of free time I do Google image searches for my most popular images and always hit on 1 or 2. The luck part is finding a business that willfully violated the statute (usually DMCA, when they remove watermarks or EXIF data). It's not worth my time to go after a small blog, and in all honesty they probably don't know better so I cut them some slack as long as they are not selling my image (prints, etc). Businesses, publishers, ad agencies, etc all should know better. They made a business decision to risk getting caught.

    Last year alone I settled with an international book publisher (their initial offer was 50 copies of the infringing book... hahahahaha), a convention and visitors bureau of a large European city, and a large state university -- each in the $1k - $5k range. Financed my 2 new tilt/shift lenses and my quad-copter 🙂


  20. I should also mention -- check out for good info. I recommend her book and sample forms (DMCA takedown notice, Copyright Infringement Cease & Desist/Demand Letter, settlement agreement, etc). I was able to negotiate 1 of my 3 settlements last year on my own using her forms and the threat of legal council as a backstop. For the other 2 I decided to let a lawyer handle it for me.


  21. @Matt Davis - As I understand it, there will be limitations on what you can collect for infringements before your registration, but after your images are registered, you are entitled to all of the advantages that registration brings. Your registration is effective as soon as your payment clears and the paperwork (ePaper) is filed. You can't file a suit until you receive the certificate from the Copyright office which may take a month or two. There is an option to get express service, but it's very expensive. It might still be worth the price ($750 ish).

    If you haven't registered an image and you find it being infringed, register it immediately. It certainly can't hurt.

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