Dave vs. The Star Tribune

A cautionary tale of copyright issues
The Quadriga atop the
Minnesota State Capitol

Back at the end of May, 2009, a co-worker of mine pointed me to a post within the Star Tribune’s “Your Voices” section, which was using one of my photos (it’s since been removed from that page, but is reproduced smaller at right), but which credited the photo as “Courtesy Dave Polascheck / Flickr”

Now I always think it’s nice when folks want to use my photos, but there are two things I’m pretty persnickety about. The first is that I get some compensation, for hopefully obvious reasons. The second is that I’m properly credited, so if someone enjoys the photo, they can google me and find the rest of my photos.

In this case, neither had happened, so I got a little cranky and retained counsel. We sent off a letter to the General Counsel for the Star Tribune complaining about the unauthorized use of my photo, and the incorrect credit. I felt that, especially in light of a couple recent developments, plus the proposed Orphan Works Act, which keeps coming back like a bad penny, at a bare minimum the Strib needed to either correct the attribution for the photo or remove it. And if I could get more than the bare minimum, that would be even better.

There were a few problems though. The first is that I hadn’t registered the copyright on the photo, which means that I wouldn’t be able to recover legal fees or any punitive damages, just the Actual Damages (i.e. what I would have been likely to sell the photo for). Second, the person who used my photo wasn’t actually an employee of the Strib, but rather an unpaid “blogger” posting on their website.

In any case, I decided to move forward. Letters and phone calls were exchanged between the attorneys, and while I wasn’t being unreasonable, I didn’t want to let the Strib off the hook, either. They’re in the copyright business, and should know better. Plus I’ve seen other locals complaining about use of their photos without permission, but most would settle for just having the infringing photo removed. I figured I had the time and the energy to take things a little farther, and maybe help prevent this from happening again.

In mid-July, I got a copy of a letter from the Strib’s General Counsel, in which she proposed new guidelines for the bloggers posting on the Your Voices section of the Strib’s website, and a settlement of $500 for me. Given that I thought the photo was flawed (there’s a toolbox and a hand visible on the left side, and I didn’t crouch down to clean up the background of the photo), but still somewhat unique, since few people even take the tour through the state capitol, let alone get a relatively clean photo of the sculpture, that sounded fair enough to me, so we settled.

But there’s always a price. First, I spent more on legal fees than I got back from the Strib. $950 spent, $500 recovered. Call it a Pyrrhic Victory if you’re feeling unkind (the costs weren’t devastating to me), or a heroic failure if you think I done good.

The second cost was to my creativity. I’ve taken two photos that I’ve posted to flickr since I first found out about the use of my photo. It wasn’t just the legal issues that have slowed my photography, but they definitely played a part, since I’ve been thinking more about how to protect my photos in the future than about making new photos.

Check from the Star Tribune

On the plus side, I got some money out of the deal. I think the Strib will be better about educating folks posting on their site in the future (if they survive). I learned the importance of registering your copyright on your photos. And I’ve got an idea of how to make registration easier for me in the future. Plus, I got a story to tell about the whole situation.

Copyright 2009, Dave Polaschek. Last updated on Mon, 15 Feb 2010 14:08:47.