Rants and Sermons

Let Them Steal

Some days my time online makes it seem like photographers spend more time making watermarks than they do making photographs. So as it’s been a while since I’ve allowed myself a rant, let me weigh in with my opinions about the theft of images. But first a caveat. Yes, copyright laws matter. Yes, you should register your work. Yes, you should pick your battles and pursue thieves when it counts. And yes, people that steal are the same kinds of people that kick kittens. Of course I’ve also known a lot of photographers that go on and on about people stealing their work – work tweaked on stolen software and put into slideshows using music they’ve no rights to…

I also know not everyone’s going to agree with me; I’m bringing this up to ask important questions. Your answers will be your own.


People are going to steal your work. They always have. They always will. And each time it happens your eyes will cloud over with the red mist. I get it. But when that anger forces you to engage in a battle that consumes your creative energy, it can destroy the creative flow you’ve worked so hard to achieve. Win the battle, lose the war. Same thing with watermarks. By all means, subtly watermark your images – in Canada there are new court rewards if someone removes a watermark – but I’ve seen watermarks so large and ugly they ruin the photograph. What’s the point in posting it at all? You might as well just make ugly photographs. No one will steal those either.  And once again, the same thing with posting images online that are the size of a postage stamp. No one will steal them because no one can see them.

To be an artist means you create something and put it into the world. The rest is out of your hands. It will be experienced by people you never anticipated. It will be adored and reviled, which is better than simply being ignored. It will be criticized. It will be interpreted in ways you never intended. And it will be stolen.

We all do this work for different reasons. But most of us do not do it so we can spend our days in paranoia and anger, preventing theft and chasing down violators. For most of us, our problem is not that people are stealing our work but that too few people are seeing it. So let them steal. Hell, make it easy for them to steal. Put a tasteful watermark on your work so people can find you and then throw it into the wind and hope to God that someone with a larger audience than you puts it on Pinterest. Let people use it when they ask, and when it feels right let them do it for free.

I know, free is a bad word too.

When did we all get so consumed with greed and paranoia and self-righteousness? When did we ever do our best work when possessed by those forces? Of course it’s your right not to be stolen from. But how you respond to that is your decision, and affects your work.

There’s an old saying: “You can’t steal something from me that I willingly give you.” It has its limits, of course, but how much happier would we be, how much stronger would our own work be, and how much more would people enjoy seeing our work, if we remained committed to the idea of art as a gift. Some will pay for my work, some will not, and others will steal it. Either way, the gift keeps moving.

Time and again I’ve seen people thrive when they believe in abundance, generosity, and picking their battles very, very carefully. And I’ve seen people consumed, bound, and floundering when they’ve embraced the opposite. It’s counter-intuitive, I know. And there’s a time and a place for free. But experience suggests to me that the ones that are most consumed by this stuff are the ones that can’t afford to be. I’ll worry about theft if, God help me, I become complacent and resting on my laurels and my past work is my best, and most valuable, asset. In the meantime I’ll spend my energy doing what I love: creating my work and sharing it.


I’m off to Venice this morning, and will be in Italy photographing and teaching until May 04. As always I’ll send postcards as I can. When I’m back the book, SEVEN, goes to the bindery and I start packing for the Grizzly trip in the Khutzeymateen in Northern British Columbia.

Speaking of free, did you get your free copy of Craft & Vision’s latest eBook? Craft & Vision 2, More Great Ways to Make Stronger Photographs is available completely free here, and if you missed the first one, there’s also a bundle with both. All together it’s 20 great ways to improve your photography, all without spending a penny.

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I taught at VanArts this morning, by which I really mean I talked for two hours and hoped those beautiful young minds would learn something from my string of disconnected thoughts. One of the things I  talked about, though with my tendency to digress, I have no idea which rabbit-hole I was down when my […]

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