When your work is stolen

portfolioscreenshotA screen shot of my work (left circled) in another photgrapher’s portfolio

I’ve seen photographers I admired sharing links to thieves who have stolen or claimed other’s work as their own, feeling very sorry for the thief but also not, at the same time.  I always wondered how I’d handle it if that would have ever happened to me.  A few weeks ago I received an email with a screen shot of an East coast photographer who used my images in her portfolio.  So, I can now tell you how I handled the situation.

The back story.  An unhappy client who received inadequate work that wasn’t equal to what the photographer had shown in the her private Google+ album, started to do some research of her own.  I know what you’re thinking, That’s not a legit means to display a portfolio, first red flag – but what traced the stolen image back to me was my watermark that was overlooked and still on the image.  I know it’s just a cake shot, but even if it were one of my couples or one of my favorite shots I’ve ever taken, I know I’d still feel the same.

This isn’t legal advice if you find yourself in the situation because you can Google the info or talk to an attorney.  I will give you advice on how to handle it – how to control your emotions and perspective. Here’s what I did and my thoughts if you find your work is being claimed as someone else’s:

  1. Realize that it didn’t cause you any monetary loss. If it did, then you possibly have stronger grounds to do something about it legally.  Yes it’s unfair, no it’s not right, but it didn’t HURT you.  Unless it’s a big company like Walmart who took your image and put it in an advertisement and didn’t pay you for it, then unfortunately there’s not much legal action worth taking that wouldn’t cost you a pretty penny.  
  2. Send an email to that person and don’t insult them. Take out any jabs, threats, or curse words out of your message.  Be firm when you explain it was brought to your attention your work was being claimed as theirs.  Tell them they must cease and desist the work that belongs to you and it must be taken down within 48 hours and you should be notified when it has been done.   This is the email I sent to her.

Hello (name), 

It has been brought to my attention by a client of yours that one of the images in your portfolio was taken by me.  I was sent a screen shot of your Google album since it’s not public.  
(insert screen shot of her portfolio here)

Since I will assume you won’t know which image I’m referring to since there may be more than one image that does not belong to you, it is the cake image with the ruffles.  You left my watermark on the image.
This is to notify you that your illegal usage of my copyrighted work infringes upon my exclusive copyrights.  I am requesting that you cease and desist my work off your portfolio within 48 hours.  Please notify me when this has been completed.
I would additionally encourage you to not use other photographer’s work for your portfolio for many reasons beyond the basic that it is wrong and illegal.  By being misleading potential clients there are many consequences as I am sure you will soon find that can damage your reputation and possibly financially.
Thank you for your attention,
Diana Elizabeth 

Prepare to not receive an apology and move on.  The photographer denied it was her portfolio and claimed the entire screen shot was photoshopped by a crazy client.  When they deny it, what’s really left for you to do?  They know they got caught and since her album was deleted (the URL didn’t even go to a private album any longer) I knew that was her admitting guilt. I received an email from her client still rightfully upset over her poor wedding images, but as for my position on the issue, I choose to let it go.  I didn’t respond or take any legal action (by then the portfolio was taken down), I just realized that she was probably losing sleep that night and learned her lesson.

I know this post might make some of you upset, as if I’m justifying or encouraging people to steal other’s works.  Here’s the deal – a post doesn’t encourage people to steal who already have no morals or ethics, they were going to do it anyway.  You can’t keep others from hurting, saying, or being mean to you, we live in a world where there are just bad people who make really big mistakes.

Know that cheaters never prosper.  I know the client was rallying a lot of other photographer’s against her wedding photographer when she could find who the work really belonged to.  I know that this East coast photographer knew she was wrong and caught in the act – the flood of emails, angry words, her continuation of habitual lies, and at the end of the day she probably laid in bed with her head spinning.

It’s wrong, people are mean, some lack morals, and it’s too bad.  But if you can go to bed knowing you did all that was right and can look yourself in the mirror, that’s all that matters.  Life is too short to waste trying to continually seek justice – anyone who uses your work to claim it as theirs will never be able to create something identical or parallel to your talents.  You just need to keep creating and be as original as you can be that even if your work gets placed where it shouldn’t be, no other artist can ever duplicate what’s uniquely yours.

Diana Elizabeth says negative energy and anger is wasted energy and emotions.

Diana Elizabeth is an author, photographer, and obsessive thrift shopper. You can typically find her in the garden wrist deep in dirt, at a local estate sale or planning her next epic party. She continues to blog weekly.


  • Connie Patty

    Diana, that was such a Christ-like response. Bravo!!! I’m so sorry that happened to you, but you responded beautifully! I love your work so much – you are uniquely gifted and talented. I hope someday we’ll get to meet! Blessings all over you for living out your faith! Connie

    • Diana Elizabeth

      Hi Connie, always good to see your name in my comment feed! :) Thank you so much, for some awesome reason I am not angered or upset by much nowadays, I hope it’s because I’m being refined and my perspective is greater than it was yesterday. I hope we get to meet one day too! xoxo!

  • Mary

    Thank you for the insight. It is for this reason that I am reluctant to share my images on pinterest and other similar websites. As an amateur photographer I understand that I legally own any image taken by me, watermark or not. To see how your work, with the watermark, was used without your permission makes me even more fearful. Your advice about how to handle this emotionally is well taken. I am still unsure if I will ever be brave enough to share my work, but I appreciate those who do. Maybe someday.

    • Diana Elizabeth

      Hi Mary! Thanks for taking the time to comment. Having been an amateur photographer and a professional, I have gotten to the point of realizing that if I don’t share my work, I won’t grow as an artist. Fear will create so many roadblocks. Even if someone used (and I am sure they have) my artwork as an example, I see it all over Pinterest, I am happy if it can inspire others. I would of course prefer it isn’t claimed as someone else’s but if that were to happen, that’s on them, it doesn’t affect me as an artist as I hope to create even more! Be brave and be proud of your work – you never know who you can inspire or how you will find yourself growing by putting yourself out there. :)

  • krystalc

    Sorry that happened to you. You handled it well.

  • Mailinh

    Well said, my friend! In the long run, it all comes back to people who cheat, lie, steal. You did your part in calling out this “photographer”. Sometimes there is only so much you can do, and have to think if it’s all worth the fight in the end. Plus, people who are not honest with themselves are not doing themselves any kind of favors. They are only hurting themselves in the end. It’s so much better to work hard and learn from your hurdles than to take the easy way out.


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