That Time When the U.S. Government (Almost) Stole My Photograph!

Yes, you read that title correctly.

In the olden days (a.k.a. the last days before the coronavirus pandemic altered reality around the world as we knew it a.k.a. February), I was performing a bimonthly online search pertaining to my photography business. I typically perform this ritual for two reasons: 1) to monitor my business’ reputation in cyberspace, and 2) to observe where my intellectual property appears on the internet.

It was the second reason that twitched a nerve in February because I had discovered three different organizations were using images from my portfolio without licensing them via my website. None of them had my express permission to showcase my photography on their websites.

The first company was Promact Infotech Pvt. Ltd., a tech firm in India with a satellite office address in Boulder, Colorado. Promact was using — and is still using — one of my night images of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia without permission.

The second company was Odyssey Online, a blogging company in New York. (To be honest, it’s not entirely clear to me what kind of company it is). Odyssey was using one of my best night-time cityscape images of Philadelphia for one of its articles. To my surprise, that article was dated back in October 2016, meaning my previous online searches for my own photography had not yielded this result until February 2020.

I started to wonder just how many similar scenarios likely existed of my photographs being used online without my knowledge. I suspect there are plenty.

Several minutes later, as I continued my search, my jaw suddenly dropped in aghast astonishment. There was yet a third organization that had misappropriated my work, but I had never suspected for a day in my life that this particular entity could be capable of this. I was flabbergasted because the organization was the United States Census Bureau. Yes, a department of the U.S. federal government was using a TIA aerial image of Boston for one of its presentations that had been published online in September 2019.


Needless to say, I was furious. How the heck was the American federal government disregarding its own laws regarding copyright infringement? I knew instinctively that I wasn’t going to tolerate this. Arnold’s (“Ahhh-nuld’s”) reaction below acutely represented my mood at the time.

“Oh no you didn’t.”

I did some online research, recorded potential contacts at the Census Bureau, and took to my keyboard to construct the following electronic communication:

February 27, 2020

Dear Mr. X and Mr. Y:

My name is Tosin Arasi. I’m a professional photographer based in Seattle, Washington. I am the owner of a small photography business named TIA International Photography.

On Tuesday, February 25th, I was performing a search of my own photographs via Google.com, and came across your report, entitled “Census Partner Briefing, Boston, September 2019” at this website: https://www.sba.gov/sites/default/files/articles/Census_Partner_Briefing_Boston_092319.pdf

It is a 40-page report, and on page 11, one of my aerial photographs of Boston is prominently featured. This was a photograph that I had captured during a visit to Boston in August 2013. The original photograph is on my official website here: https://tia.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/BOSTON-AERIAL/G0000pGNud.Wec.4/I0000YA4kRkZJhmU/C0000q2okofpula8

The same image also appears on my Flickr photostream site here: https://flic.kr/p/fSFwMH

Though I do not know the method that was used, I can only surmise that your organization either downloaded my photograph from Flickr or used a snipping tool to capture the photograph, cropped out the top third and bottom third of the photograph to exclude my watermark, and featured the cropped image on page 11 of your report.

Even though I appreciate your interest in the photograph for your report, the fact remains that no one from the U.S. Census Bureau ever contacted me to request permission to use my photograph. This image is TIA International Photography’s intellectual property and your organization has used it without my consent.

As a result, I would ask that the U.S Census Bureau compensate my photography business for use of the photograph in your report.  Since this report is online, and has been in publication since September 2019, I have attached a quote of the license fee to use my photograph for your report.

I hope the U.S. Census Bureau takes this matter seriously and professionally.  It is reasonable, fair, and required that a customer pay for another entity’s intellectual property that he or she uses for his or her own purposes.  That is all I am asking for your organization to do under these circumstances.

Thank you very much.

Best Regards,

Tosin I. Arasi

Owner

TIA International Photography

Of course, being the federal government, I suspected that it was altogether possible, and probable, that I would never receive a response. Metaphorically, it’s akin to expecting overnight delivery between Seattle and San Diego when the delivery service involves dazed snails medicated on tranquilizers. I had set a reminder to contact the Census Bureau again in two weeks’ time.

However, the anticipation of non-response was unwarranted. Less than 24 hours later, to my bewilderment, I received the following message:

Dear Mr. Arasi:

My name is Did I. Dothat with XXXXXXX Marketing Communications. We are the firm that designed this PowerPoint presentation for our client, the Census Bureau.


Our sincerest apologies, the use of the image without licensing was an unfortunate oversight by one of our staff members. It was certainly not our intention to use the photo without proper licensing. The image was used for a one-time PowerPoint presentation on September 25th in Boston to about a dozen people.


We went through your website to enter the correct licensing information which came to the total of $XXX. We can go ahead and purchase the image now through your site unless you would rather send us an invoice for it.


Please let me know if you have any questions at all.
Thank you!

Alas, this story had an extremely quick and benevolent conclusion that I could never have forecast. Unfortunately, as of the date of this blog article, I have been unsuccessful in receiving responses from Promact and Odyssey for similar notices of copyright infringement that I had sent to them.

Regardless, I was somewhat content and encouraged to acknowledge that there were still some ounces of accountability and responsibility in the federal government during this era of political chaos, corruption, and tumult. I may have to settle for one out of three in this case and continue the battle against other infringers in the future. I’ve worked too arduously, cautiously, and ethically over the past decade for my own creative work to be undervalued, undermined, or stolen without a fight.

For photographers and artists (based in the United States) who are seeking to protect their work from misappropriation by other individuals and companies, you may wish to consider registering your images, drawings, and artwork with the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington, D.C.

Not without a fight.

Thanks for reading this article. If you enjoyed the photographs here, please visit my official website @ www.tia-international-photography.com for an indelible, visual experience.

2 comments

  1. I’m glad the Federal Government responded to you! I remember this experience and how shocking it was but you handled it like the professional you are! I hope Promact and Odyssey do the same!

    1. Cheers, KD. I definitely wanted to document this particular experience in a blog article as I know misappropriation of different individual’s own intellectual property is a rampant problem worldwide. I honestly thought that if the federal government decided to brush this off, then there really was no hope. I’m glad that I was proven wrong in this case. A response within 24 hours means the original recipients of my letter took what I said seriously and didn’t let it flounder for days upon days. (I’m trying to take your lead here in looking at the positive).

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