Why Congress Needs to Focus on Photographers

by David Trust

Recently, the story about the wedding photographer and the Texas “lifestyle-blogger” couple has gone viral. It’s been shared millions of times on the internet, as well as on local and national news programs. Taken at face value, it’s an alluring story because it seems so outrageous! The slander this photographer faced was terrible and destructive to her business, but there is a much more common and important problem affecting all working photographers: copyright infringement.

Every day, thousands of working photographers and visual artists suffer from copyright infringement. In fact, over 70% of photographers and visual artists will lose a month’s worth of income, or more, during their careers to copyright infringement.

Consider what happened to Kathy Keatley Garvey, a senior writer with the University of California, Davis, Department of Entomology and Nematology. She captured a rare, close-up photo of a honeybee sting which showed the bee’s abdominal tissue unraveling as it flew away from its own stinger. The photo titled “The Sting” won international awards and was named one of Huffington Post’s Most Amazing Photos of 2012.

Kathy posted the image to her website and blog with copyright attribution, and from that moment, lost complete control of the image. “The Sting” has been used for advertising on pest control websites. It has been used on porn sites to draw in traffic. It is being sold widely across the internet as a canvas print, a poster, on coffee cups, cell phone covers, and mouse pads, to name just a few infringements.

Kathy has not consented to the use of her photographic work for any of those means, and she has not earned a penny for it. Sadly, this is a common story for any professional photographer. Not much can be done to remedy this copyright-infringement uphill battle in our internet era, unless Congress takes action.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA-6) and Ranking Member John Conyers (D-MI-13) have both been champions on copyright-related issues. Their most recent proposal recommends “requiring the U.S. Copyright Office to maintain an up-to-date digital, searchable database of all copyrighted works and associated copyright ownership information,” — a move which would (finally!) protect artists like Kathy.

But these legislative proposals have not received enough support to move forward. And now, many in Congress are turning a blind eye to the visual-artist community. Despite Congressional inaction relating to copyright matters, Professional Photographers of America continues to advocate for artists rights, in the background, every day.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2020, there will close to 160,000 professional photographers in the U.S., and they represent just a fraction of the entire visual artist community, not to mention an even smaller portion of the small-business sector.

Without help from Congress, small business owners and artists like Kathy face an impossible challenge. How are they supposed to make a living if they can’t protect their intellectual property? Each and every visual artist deserves the right to protect their work and their livelihood. It’s time for Congress to keep its eye on copyright issues, and to keep America’s professional photographers in focus.

David Trust is CEO of Professional Photographers of America (PPA), the largest international nonprofit association created by professional photographers, for professional photographers. Almost as long-lived as photography itself, PPA’s roots date back to 1869. It assists 30,000 members through protection, education and resources for their continued success.