Humans of New York (HONY) is a concept created by Brandon Stanton that creates a visual catalog of the inhabitants of New York City through street photography and writing. Since 2010 they have been photographing individuals around NYC and publishing their photographs on their blog and have over 300k Facebook and Twitter followers.

According to reports directly from HONY, they were approached by the fashion company DKNY and attempted to acquire the licensing to around 300 photographs to use commercially throughout their stores across the world. DKNY offered the photographer a total of $15,000 for the use of the 300 photographs. This breaks down to $50 per licensed image, which the photographer felt was not a fair offer. HONY responded by asking for additional money to use the photos, and DKNY responded “NO” – they would not pay additional money for the use of the photos. [To give some perspective, one single commercial photograph might be licensed (with a detailed specific use within a specific geographic area) for anywhere between $100 and $10,000.]

tumblr_mis611IwI71qggwnvo1_1280Fast forward to this morning, and HONY has been made aware that DKNY is now showing their photographs in a store front in Bangkok without his permission or any form of compensation. This has not yet been verified but it certainly looks as though they are in fact using his photographs half way around the world.

If the theft is in fact true, then DKNY has some serious issues on their hands. The fact that they were in negotiations to license the photos clearly demonstrates that they knew exactly who the copyright owner was and that they were stealing the images without his permission. DKNY’s Facebook page is currently exploding with posts from outraged members of the public, who are screaming for justice and for DKNY to now donate $100,000 on HONY’s behalf to the YMCA in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. DKNY is deleting the posts, and has not yet responded in any official way to the accusations of the the theft.

UPDATE: DKNY has issued the following statement regarding the use of HONY photos:

“Since its founding in 1989, DKNY has been inspired by and incorporated authentic New York into its imagery. For our Spring 2013 store window visuals we decided to celebrate the city that is in our name by showcasing “Only in NYC” images. We have immense respect for Brandon Stanton aka Humans of New York and approached him to work with us on this visual program. He declined to participate in the project.

For the Spring 2013 windows program, we licensed and paid for photos from established photography service providers. However, it appears that inadvertently the store in Bangkok used an internal mock up containing some of Mr. Stanton’s images that was intended to merely show the direction of the spring visual program. We apologize for this error and are working to ensure that only the approved artwork is used.

DKNY has always supported the arts and we deeply regret this mistake. Accordingly, we are making a charitable donation of $25,000 to the YMCA in Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn in Mr. Stanton’s name.”

I was recently also a victim of copyright infringement, as I discovered that one of my most popular photos of Newport, RI was being used as the main image in an advertising and marketing campaign by a major local events company in Newport without my consent or permission. After contacting the company and threatening a lawsuit, we were able to reach an agreement.

In this age of Google image searches, it’s all too easy to acquire digital images that are of sufficient resolution, or can be “ressed-up” in Photoshop, and then printed or used commercially. So many individuals acquire images in this manner, without even a second thought about the potential of a lawsuit or the original photographer even discovering that the photos have been stolen. In my case, a company local to Newport, RI took images from a local photographer and used them in a campaign in the same area. It’s hard to believe that the company honestly didn’t know where the image came from and that the theft would not be discovered. In the DKNY example, they stole images from a NYC based photographer and used them in Asia. However, the world is a smaller place thanks to technology and digital communications – so within days HONY had received a photo showing his work in a Bangkok storefront.

No one would walk into a museum and rip a famous painting off the wall and scan it and then use it in a commercial setting. Few people would walk into a photo gallery and attempt to physically steal a framed print. But, people will gladly make use of copyrighted digital images without a second thought as to the legality or ethics of doing so. My thoughts on this are that people feel a sense of anonymity by lifting digital images from a website or Google Images. No one saw them do it, so in their mind they aren’t really committing a crime or doing anything too bad. In reality, there is no difference between physically stealing a print and copying and pasting a digital image. It’s the same thing, and using the photos commercially could actually get you into more trouble than simply having a print of a photograph. Often times, photos are licensed for commercial use at a price tag of four to five digits or more. The damages associated with using a copyrighted image in a commercial or advertising setting can be very high.

With cheap stock photography options available, as well as contacting and working directly with your local photographers, and the myriad of publicly available free images (such as through websites as SXC.HU, and those images offered under a Creative Commons license) there is NO EXCUSE for the theft of photography. It may seem to you that you are just right clicking and saving a simple photograph, but consider the cost of photography education, equipment plus time spent in the field and chances are that photo cost over $10,000 to create. Also, US Intellectual Copyright laws can carry up to a $150,000 fine per copyright infraction. Consider that the next time you’re tempted to use a professional photograph that doesn’t belong to you.