Personal Branding Extortion: Your Money or Your Reputation

Personal Branding

Has a copyright issue lead to threats of extortion? You be the judge.


Over on JobMob back in March 2010, I published 20 Funniest Job Search and Work FAIL Pictures, a collection that was gathered from around the web.

One of the images initially included in that article was from a photographer’s Flickr stream. This being over 23 months ago, I don’t know what the image’s content license was at the time, but the license is now set to “all rights reserved” i.e. the creator retains all rights to the image (except of course, allowing Flickr to distribute it).

If the license was “all rights reserved” at the time of inclusion, then it was a mistake to do so (although you really have to wonder why Flickr provides embed code for such images when the sole purpose of embed code is to show the images on other sites, which just sets up everyone involved for a fall).

JobMob is a commercial blog, however the image in question wasn’t resold or redistributed in any products. It only appeared in the JobMob article and any website that syndicated JobMob articles back then.

Fast forward

This past week, I received a stern email from the photographer. Here are some quotes:

“It has come to my attention that you have made an unauthorized use of my copyrighted work …

By redistributing my Work in the way that you have, without contacting me or asking permission, you have seriously damaged my ability to control my copyright …

I would like a $500 license fee, or a comparable and mutually agreeable compensation for the use. Perhaps you can use your powers of promotion on my behalf …

Please remove the image … immediately and respond ASAP! If not, I will proceed with a DMCA takedown notice and I shall have to consider taking the full legal remedies available to rectify this situation.”

It is convenient that nowhere on the image’s Flickr page, even now, is a licensing fee mentioned, so the photographer can claim any amount he wants after the fact.

Nor can he show that the appearance of the image on JobMob somehow deprived him of that amount.

Regardless, the guy is angry and is taking a hard line to try for a quick reaction. It worked, because I immediately replied:

“Ok to remove the image but are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to continue getting free exposure?

Since the article was published, it has had 15427 pageviews and 93 people have clicked through to visit your Flickr profile.

If possible, I can update the link to point at a page where people can buy a copy.

Or I can just remove it as you requested, whatever you prefer.”

He too replied immediately, again covering the legal points from the first email and explaining that “the ‘free exposure’ for a Work … does not actually help to pay for the Work. In this case, it is the image itself that has the value, not the link back.”

(Which isn’t true; people can only license the image if they know about it i.e. without exposure, he might never be able to get a return for the Work.)

He then went on to describe his current project – a film – and asked for promotional help in attaining a “mutually beneficial win-win relationship.”

I thought the implied benefit to me was permission to continue using the image, but it later became clear that he saw it as something else entirely. This was the first sign of a bad turn in the situation.

My response said that his project is “not related to job search, so realistically speaking, even if I mentioned it in an article, not too many people would click through … I wouldn’t want to get your hopes up only to leave you in a situation where you feel that the image was ripped off AND the compensation wasn’t fair.”

Things go sour

Over the next few days, he sent 3 more emails, in which he continued to argue his situation, but also to insult me and JobMob, saying that the article where the image was used was “mostly mediocre quality content,” and calling me a digital socialist and a thief with “a fundamentally underdeveloped sense of right and wrong.”

Almost buried among the harsh language, he did repeat that I remove the image, which I of course did, having said I would all along and going so far as to make sure it no longer appears on the syndicated sites as well.

However, there were some menacing words too:

  1. “I think, given that you have profited from my copyright in an illegal manner, $400 is more than reasonable. By donating to my non-profit film, you are helping me CREATE more content rather than simply profiteering on my intellectual property.”
  2. “Your terrific success cannot come at the expense of others’ success if you pursue your goals through illegal means.”

He also tweeted:

“@jacobshare Coming soon: the curious story of a ‘job-finding’ expert who puts photographers out of work.”

So I should make a donation to his film, or else he’s going to kick off a libel campaign.

Google defines extortion as “the practice of obtaining something, esp. money, through force or threats.”

Does this sound like extortion to you? Or “just” unfair exploitation?

In his first email complaint to me, the photographer said that he “must vigorously defend” his intellectual property. If that is the case:

  1. Why did he post his images on Flickr, a public website where you don’t even need to login to get the embed code to show his image on another site? Why not post the images to a closed site, or one where the images are at least watermarked?
  2. Why did it take him almost two full years to react? Is this a planned attempt to raise funds for his latest project?

I may have made a mistake and although that’s not fully clear, I’ve made up for it.

What do you think?

Stay tuned.


Jacob Share, a job search expert, is the creator of JobMob, one of the biggest blogs in the world about finding jobs. Follow him on Twitter for job search tips and humor.