So, about that whole “thou shalt not steal” thing…

6 minute read

May 7, 2017, 11:50 AM

Sometimes the level of hypocrisy shown by those in organized religion just makes me stand back in awe.  They preach Christian values, and then don’t follow them in real life.  In this instance, it involves the church that I used to attend from 1992 until 2003, and where I am still technically a member, albeit inactive.  Through a recent interaction, I learned quite a bit more than I expected as far as where things stand with them.

For those who aren’t familiar, I work with a company called Pixsy to recover royalties for cases where my photographs are used without permission.  I routinely search for and submit cases where my photos are used without permission in hopes of recovering license fees for that usage.  Basically, I have no problem with downstream usages of my photos.  But I am a professional who deserves to be paid for those usages in a professional setting.  Basically, if you expect to take in revenue based on materials that contain my work, then you need to pay me for the usage.  My take on it is that if you were going to hire a photographer to do a shoot for you, there’s no question that you would pay them.  But by using photos of mine that I have already created, you’ve essentially hired me as your photographer, and as such, I should be paid.  Using my work for commercial purposes without even so much as asking me is a major no-no as far as I’m concerned.

In this case, I was skimming through the Internet looking for potential infringement cases, I found this:

The ChurchFinder page for Finley Memorial Presbyterian Church

I recognized that photo, showing Finley Memorial Presbyterian Church.  I took that photo back in January 2003:

My photo of Finley Memorial Presbyterian Church, from 2003

The biggest giveaway that it was one of mine was the presence of two big lumps of snow in the foreground.  Those wouldn’t show up in most photos of the church.  I later posted this photo to Panoramio, a photo geotagging service that was integrated into Google Maps earlier this year.  I figured that the people who run the ChurchFinder site found my photo on Google, saved it, and then uploaded it to their website without even giving it a second thought.  Fine.  Pay me for the usage, and all is well.  Pixsy accepted the case, and it was off to the races.

So imagine my surprise a few weeks ago to receive an angry text message from my mother​, claiming that someone called the church seeking compensation for the usage of one of my photographs.  Pixsy had done exactly what I had hired them to do, and traced the infringement back to its source.  And I was as surprised as anyone that the case found its way back to the church.  I figured that the website that I had found it on just yoinked it off of the Internet and posted it all by themselves, and that the church itself had nothing to do with it.

Now, contractually, I’m not allowed to contact the party committing the infringement, and if contacted by the infringing party, it is my responsibility to refer them back to Pixsy for resolution of the case without further comment (I say as much on my contact page).  Likewise, if I have made previous contact with the party making the infringement, then Pixsy won’t touch it.

So this became a very sticky situation.  First of all, I was informed by my mother that I was now involved in a copyright claim against her church.  If I had known that it would go back to the church, I probably wouldn’t have brought it through Pixsy, but rather contacted the church directly to resolve the matter privately.  Secondly​, my mother more or less made herself a party in the case, because the minister told her about it, and she went to me about it.  I had to gently remind my mother that this was not her battle to fight, that I was not allowed to discuss the case per my agreement with Pixsy, and that if the church did, in fact, use my photo without permission, then they should pay me.

Imagine my surprise to see my mother then take the church’s side on this, playing the “poor nonprofit” card, and blaming everything on the previous minister, who had resigned his position a few years ago in order to join ECO, a homophobic Presbyterian denomination that broke away from the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2012.  She even went so far as to tell me that she would pay the fee herself, and that would be my Christmas present.  Clearly, my mother was taking this very personally, whereas to me, it was not a personal matter at all – it was just business.  I didn’t care what person, acting on behalf of the church, did it.  Whoever did it, it was done, and actions have consequences.

In the end, this was a no-win situation for me, and so I did what any normal person would do: I asked Pixsy to cancel the case.  I’m not letting a case drive a wedge between me and my family.

The take-home points were surprising.  I used to think that my old church practiced what it preached.  Not anymore.  Apparently, the whole “thou shalt not steal” thing only applies to physical goods.  I checked my Bible, and I didn’t find an asterisk on that commandment, and no fine print spelling out exceptions for digital products.  Likewise, there’s also the whole idea of rendering unto Caesar what is his and such, i.e. paying one’s obligations.

I’m also surprised that the church used the photo in the first place.  I took the photo with Big Mavica, which means it’s relatively low resolution.  Plus it was taken on a wet and cloudy day – so it’s not the best photo.  I took better photos of the church during my sister’s wedding.  But considering that it originated with the church, one has to wonder why they would steal a photo in the first place.  Go outside on a nice day and take your own bloody photo instead of stealing mine.  In that case, they would own the photo outright, and could use it however they wanted.  Likewise, sloppy handling of images is no excuse.  Just because a photo of mine made its way onto a church computer doesn’t mean that the church has carte blanche to do whatever it wants with it.  A good rule of thumb is that if you didn’t take a photo, and don’t know where it came from, you probably shouldn’t use it.

Then there’s the matter of how the church views me.  Rather than treating this as a business matter amongst professionals and working with Pixsy, they went straight to my mother, like I was a child.  I think “look what your son did” is the best description for it.  At least I know where I stand, I suppose.  It is clear that I will never be viewed as an adult at Finley Memorial.  I will always​ be viewed there as a child, rather than as someone with their own professional endeavors, and who should be taken seriously as an adult.  They had no business putting my mother in the middle of that situation.  This was a business matter between the church and me, via Pixsy.  That the church opted to bring my mother into this discussion is both highly insulting and extremely unprofessional.

But most concerning is my mother, who, when put into this uncomfortable situation by the minister, took the church’s side over mine, and thus I was the bad guy.  Really?  This is the same person who was so proud of me for going after infringers and making money based off of making their infringements legal, and now that her church got caught violating copyright, I’m the bad guy, and she’s defending the thieves.  Thanks a lot, Mom.  Way to stick up for me.  That hurts.  I was very disappointed that my mother refused to support me, especially when she knew that Pixsy money is helping me get ahead financially, and eventually buy a house.  I also found it interesting how quick my mother was to make excuses for the church.  My mother was a teacher for many years, and many teachers that I had wouldn’t take excuses.  If I didn’t complete an assignment, they would say, “No, you chose not to complete that assignment.”  Ultimately, people acting on behalf of the church chose to steal my imagery rather than take their own photo, or ask permission to use mine.  No excuse for that.

All in all, this has been an eye-opener.  And all of this could have been avoided if the church had first sought permission to use the photo.  I probably would have let the church use it for free because of our former association, but now I’ve lost any respect for them that I might have once had.  In the end, the moral is the same as when WJLA stole my Noah’s Ark photo: don’t steal.  Just because something is on the Internet doesn’t mean that you are free to use it as you wish without asking permission first.