Don't be a Copy Cat (How to handle content by others)

Last month I discovered things I created were published without my permission. Unfortunately, it was not the first time. In the past, entire photo series somehow ended up in online portfolios of starting competitors, for real. But three times in one single month, that was another ball game. Twice it was a photo, the third time it was text related content.

Although my sweet husband tried to comfort me with the words "copying is the ultimate form of flattery," it did not feel flattering at all. It sincerely felt like someone stole my stuff on two of the occasions. Two of them? Yes, I will explain in a second. Nevertheless, I felt that there was nothing else to do than to approach the copy cats. An awful job, but someone's got to do it.

Photo 1: Broker with commercial purpose

It was a picture of the front of a house I had photographed for one of my regular customers. That picture was used by a broker, one of the old fashioned ones with photography ambitions, to advertise his services on Facebook. The use of that image clearly had a commercial purpose. The man probably did not even consciously choose the picture with the intention of commercializing it; not realising that listing photos are copyrighted.

I kindly requested him, by email, to remove the picture immediately and mentioned that if he did not do that, he would receive an invoice. I don't like being law enforcement, but using my work to make a good impression on prospects? No way! Fortunately, he removed the picture immediately, but when I walked into him the other day he was looking away with a pretty angry look on his face. I don't think he will ever hire me and frankly, I don't care.

Photo 2: Private with commercial purpose

The second picture was one of a children's bedroom; the bunk bed was up for sale. I discovered the ad because one of my Twitter followers shared it. The lady that used the photo was a private individual for whom I had photographed the house, commissioned by one of the agents I work for on a regular basis. The house was sold within a week, and the owners thanked me personally for the pictures.

I could have acted straightforward, and told her that she had to get the picture off-line. After all, that picture also had a commercial purpose: selling the bed of her son. But, I didn't. However, I wrote in a comment that she was a naughty girl using the photo without my permission, with a wink emoticon. Why just that? Because she was someone who appreciated my work, knew who created that picture was but was totally unaware of copyright.

"Yes, but Nicolet," I hear your thinking. "There's no actual difference in those two stories!" Indeed, in legal terms, I could have sent an invoice to both of them. Well, usually, at first I send a request to remove the photos. However, I was a lot milder to the homeowner. Why? Because, as an entrepreneur, you should have knowledge of copyright infringement, especially an agent, working with photo's all the time should know that you cannot use footage without source and permission. Besides, for me personally, there is a big difference in selling your child's bed once and offering your services as a broker.

Copied by one of my students

What about situation three? You probably have figured out that I am a real estate photographer, I teach on that subject too. A student of mine proudly shared her new website on social media. One of my primary classes is about branding and entrepreneurship, so I was curious what she had been working on. At the bottom of the homepage, she offered an opt-in incentive: The download of three checklists: A list of repairs and cleaning tasks, one of preparing for the photo shoot and finally one for showings. The alarm bells were ringing, and I signed up to her newsletter. A few seconds later the checklists were delivered in my inbox. I don't need to explain: those were the exact copies of the lists I created for the book that my students receive during the first class. Those files are also downloadable on my Dutch website.

That situation seriously gave me the cramps! I had known this student for several years. She is a driven businesswoman and a talented home stager. So why did she just copy my lists? During the course, I had clearly explained that my texts could be used for inspiration. And the copyright sign at the bottom of my checklists and the colophon in my book should have been enough I guess? I felt rotten and almost defensive when I emailed her with the request to delete the lists.

I did, knowing that I might damage a good relationship. I received a pretty cool response to my email: "I apologize for that, the checklists perhaps inspired me to much." I must add that she has indeed replaced the lists directly with her material. But the hardest part remained the copyright statement in the footer of her website: "Copying is stealing."

How to handle content by others?

During my courses, I often hear that writing web texts is a difficult thing. Not everyone is naturally a writer. Almost everyone is looking for inspiration on other sites, so do I. Nothing wrong with that! Reviewing and reading others people's work can give you handles to create your content. And heavens, these days everyone tells you to blog because seemingly, it's a good thing for SEO. Don't over due it just because your attempting to improve your SEO, it could lead to more damage then good.


So what if you're totally uninspired and you've just read that perfect piece that makes you think: "That blog exactly tells what I'd like to write." Almost all content, yes, even the online line stuff, is copyrighted. Just copying, even with the adaptation of a few words and some additions, is not allowed. Period!

This is not only regulated by law in the Netherlands, but copyright applies almost everywhere in the world. Not just on texts but also on photography, illustrations, and video. Are you so excited about someone else's content that you really want to write about? Then state your opinion and link to the article.

It's important that you always mention the source when you refer to content by others. Preferably with a link when it's about an online article. Do not flawlessly copy something on your own website or social media, giving the impression that you've done the job.

Use content as a quote, even pictures!

The most copied content on the Internet is probably photography. The use of pictures of another is allowed, provided it is used as a citation. I did that on a daily basis when I started eight years ago with my blog Foute Huizen (Hideous Homes). I blogged about the terrible listing's photos in the Netherlands. Within 3 months after starting the website, it went viral. The blog was mentioned in all the leading Dutch newspapers and was interviewed on several national radio shows.

Although the brokers concerned were not at all amused with by placement of their listings photos with my witty comments. And especially not with the link to the relevant property on the MLS, I just followed the law. It is allowed to use images as long as they are necessary to state your opinion.

Of course, you can use stock photos on your website, but frankly, I'm not for an ambassador for stock images, especially if you're working in the creative field. Just take care of your own pictures. And when you don't know how to take a good picture? There are so many excellent online courses on how to take great pictures and edit them with your smartphone. So teach yourself how to create your own images! (Yes, those are the words of a professional photographer that uses her iPhone on a regular basis for quick social media content creation).

Sharing on Social Media

What about sharing content on social media? Sharing blogs and images is not a problem in most cases. At the bottom of this post, and almost any other blog, you will find buttons to share the piece with your followers on Social Media, please do so! I'm writing to be read, and I suppose that's your purpose as a blogger as well. As long as it remains clear who wrote the content or shot the picture. So, be kind and do not share a Pinterest post or Google link without checking that it link to the original source.

For your own sake, and the sake of your fellow bloggers, learn what and what not to do online.

All images copyright Nicolet Groen

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