Local businesses encounter download danger, learn ‘free photos’ could cost them thousands

Problem Solvers

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — There are thousands of beautiful photos on the web, but be careful if you use them without permission.

It could cost you thousands.

“It was our understanding that it was okay to share those images because they did not have a copyright stamp,” said Megan Voepel of Voepel Property Management.

But unbeknownst to Voepel, under federal copyright law, a stamp or copyright symbol is not required. That mistake cost Voepel nearly $30,000, including attorney fees. She’s not alone.

Voepel Property Management is one of about 50 companies Kansas City, Kansas photographer Eric Bowers has sued.

Lawsuits like the one Voepel faced are becoming increasingly common across the country. Photographers are signing up with companies such as ImageRights to hunt down their photos on the web. ImageRights  can often find unauthorized photos on corporate Facebook pages, blogs and websites, as gym owner Al Fong discovered.

“It was a free picture from Google, free,” said Fong, something he quickly learned wasn’t true. A web designer had used a photo of Kansas City’s Plaza Lights to promote Fong’s gymnastic meet in Kansas City.

Fong never gave the photo a second thought until he got a letter demanding $1,100 from ImageRights on behalf of photographer Bowers. Fong said he had no idea who the photographer was since there was no copyright or name on the photo.

“It’s a big shock to us,” said Fong who took the photo down immediately. However,  he refused to pay $1,100 since he could have purchased a Plaza Lights photo from a site like iStock for as little as $35.

Bowers is now suing Fong’s company for nearly $10,000.  If Fong loses in court, he could be responsible for paying the photographer’s legal fees as well as his own.

“It’s dangerous, dangerous to the business,” Fong said of his gym, which has struggled to hold onto students during Covid.

“Everyone is fighting to keep the doors open.”

Kansas City attorney Chris Wirken said he was alarmed by the number of lawsuits Bowers has filed.

“It’s almost, I fear, an extortion racket,” said Wirken who has had two clients sued by Bowers. 

Wirken said it’s understandable that many businesses believed the photos were free because they can be found on multiple websites, like wallpaper.com, and often have no identifying information. Some were circulating on the web for years before being registered with the copyright office.

“Folks just don’t seem to know that outdated, before-the-internet, federal legislation doesn’t completely protect an innocent innocuous user of this photography,” Wirken said.

Photographer Bowers wrote in a blog several years ago that he secures a reliable income stream by going after copyright infringements. The cost of using a copyrighted photo without permission can top $30,000.  FOX4 Problem Solvers tried to talk to Bowers, but he referred us to his St. Louis attorney, Rick Voytas.

“I find it hard to believe this would be a story if people were walking into a person’s shop and taking some wares for sale and walking out with them,” Voytas said.

“That’s what is happening to these images of Eric’s.”

Voytas said Bowers has invested thousands of dollars and countless hours into his photography business and deserves to be paid when others use his photos.

Megan Voeple, whose business was sued by Bowers, acknowledged that photographers need to be protected.

“I respect that,” she said. “I also think that small business needs to be protected and if there is a clear pattern of behavior that is happening, and you are going to allow your images to circulate the web for years and then decide to copyright them, then something needs to happen…. maybe you take all those images that are circulating the web off the web so that people no longer fall into this trap.”

Voytas, who said Bowers now copyrights his photos as soon as he publishes them, has tried to go after the companies who put his copyrighted photos out there for others to use for free, but many are based overseas and don’t respond to his demands to take them down.

“That is a problem, but it is an easy one to solve” Voytas said. “Just don’t take pictures on the internet that aren’t yours.”

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