Someone stole my photos and it sucks

Here are the lessons I learned.

This summer, a longtime community project that my husband had been leading was getting off the ground and I was asked to create some photos for the launch. In between the time when I created the photographs and the launch – my husband parted ways with the well-funded tech association…and I suddenly did not feel so good about the time and the intellectual property I had donated to an organization that had been less than kind to my family.

Three weeks after my husband left the organization, I received a request for a high-res image file for the website. I let the marketing manager know that we going to need to have a discussion about continuing to use my photos. I replied:

We need to talk about all the photo use in general. I did it as favour for **** and given the changes in relationships, I think it’s best if we have a conversation. “

And so we did. Admittedly, I was a little more emotional on this call than I would be in a normal business situation – but the person on the other end knew the stress my family was under at the time. I was very clear – I needed to be fairly compensated for them to use these photos.

Afterward, she wrote me an email to recap our conversation:

Hi Mel, 
Thanks for your call this morning. 
We’d like to be able to use the 21 photos below on the new *** website, social media and marketing materials.
Please let us know the value of these photos and we hope the price can reflect the “quick and dirty” shoot as you called it with no lighting equipment. 🙂 
We greatly appreciate the fact you did this shoot for us. It was amazing of you to donate your time and talent. We’re also grateful to have you as a double member through ****. Your support means the world.
Let us know what the photos are worth and we’ll work on getting you compensated with cash or in-kind as we discussed on the phone. We want this to be a mutually beneficial agreement. We’ll draw up a proper contract once that agreement is reached.
Thanks again!
PHOTOS: ***-2020-2111,
{list of file names here} “

I sent off my high-res files after I received that email because I felt I could trust this person.

I sent an invoice through with same standard rates I had previously billed the organization – but this time I discounted the licensing fees at 50% and called it a “goodwill partner discount”. The invoice totaled $2622.90 and included an unlimited, nonexclusive license to the 21 photos.

First Lesson: Even though I had licensed photos to the organization in the past, I should have made it clear that the licence to use the photos is not granted until I have been paid in full or an agreement on in-kind compensation had been made. This may be common-sense to us creatives, but to the general public, they are often unaware that they cannot use a photograph for ANY commercial purpose unless they have licensed it.

Second Lesson: Don’t deliver your high-res files until you have a signed agreement in place. Again, common sense and a best practice I should have followed.

More than a month passed, and I had heard nothing, so decided to follow up on. I got a response that the new Executive Director would be in touch.

Third Lesson: Don’t wait too long to follow up on your unpaid invoice, because staff changes can make a situation much more difficult.

Nearly a month later, I received an email:

Hello Melissa,

Apologies for not getting in touch sooner.

With regards to your invoice.

I have gone through past emails and talked to the staff.  I have not found any formal agreements/contracts that had been put in place concerning the photographs.  It was explained to me that these photos were ‘pro bono’, that it was discussed they were to be used temporarily, and that there was no expectation of cash payment.

I have decided, based on the information available to me, that there will be no payment.  I hope you can understand that I gave this matter my full attention, my decision is final, and I consider this matter closed.

So, I realize I may be naive, but I didn’t see this coming in a million years. You see, I also happen to hold two memberships in this organization for two separate technology start-ups AND was paying monthly for their Venture Acceleration Program. I even made it an option to be compensated in-kind and thought that perhaps an option would be to get my membership & VAP fees waived for the time.

I was feeling pretty defeated and wasn’t sure what to do. My business partner sent an email to the Executive Director and eventually had a call with him to see if he could find some common ground, but that went nowhere. I basically could do nothing. I was SOL.

They said they would compensate me. They used my photos. And then they decided not to compensate me.

So someone stole my photos. And it sucked.

I spent about a week moving through a lot of emotions. I even cried.

All I could think about was how hard I’ve worked in my career to be respected and fairly compensated as a businesswoman. I thought about every other person that contributed to that community project and thought about how they probably all got paid for their contribution.

I was angry and frustrated.

Then I thought about the Canadian Copyright Law, and realized I am protected in situations like this.

Heck, I even wrote about it in my book Pixel Cents:

In 2012, after 25 years of lobbying, Canadian photographers finally own their copyright. Thanks to the PPOC and CAPIC, with the passage of Bill C-11, photographers are the first owners of copyright on their works by default.

What this means is if there is no written contract or agreement and someone uses your images – they are in violation of the Canadian Copyright law.

Forth Lesson: Lean on your professional organization for support.

Thank goodness for the Professional Photographers of Canada (PPOC). I have been a member for more than 9 years now and it has completely altered the trajectory of my career. Within a day or two of reaching out, I received a phone call from the Chair of the PPOC and received support from other members on how to handle the situation. I was directed to our PPOC resource section where I found a Cease and Desist letter and received a member support letter I could send educating this organization about copyright.

Now to be honest, I still didn’t know if I had the courage or the capacity to take this on. 10 or 20 years ago in the early stages of my career, I would have rolled over and done nothing.

And then I thought about the “F*ck You; Pay Me!” article I had read a long time ago that linked to a talk empowering creatives to stand up for themselves and get PAID! Not to mention all the time and energy I’ve spent over the year encouraging photographers to know their numbers and be confident enough to ask for a living wage.

So, today, I sent them a letter expressing my disappointment in their behaviour. I also sent them a Cease and Desist letter with screenshots of my photos still published on their websites and social media. And, I sent them that informal letter of support from the Professional Photographers of Canada educating them on copyright law.

I have asked them to donate the $2,622.90 they owe me to the Professional Photographers of Canada (a non-profit organization) copyright fund so they can continue their work supporting professional photographers.

So why am I sharing this with all of you?

Fifth Lesson: We are all human

I’m not perfect. After 20 years of working in this industry, and having my MPA (Masters of Photographic Arts) I didn’t follow best practices and delivered high-res files without a signed written delivery memo. I have taught this for years and am embarrassed for not following my own policies.

Sixth Lesson: The fight to be fairly compensated continues

We have to have the courage to stand up for ourselves and each other. Photographer’s wages have plummeted in the past 15 years while the digital economy thrives on our work. Technology and social media could not exist in the capacity it does today without creative people like us.

The average salary in the tech sector in British Columbia is $97,000.

The average salary for a Professional Photographer in Canada is $39,000.

Creative people deserve to make a living wage and their work needs to be valued in our society.

I hope my experience can help you find the courage to stand up for copyright and your rates.

And to the organization who stiffed me:

F*ck You; Pay my fees to the PPOC


Melissa Welsh is a National Award-Winning Master Photographer, Author and Tech Entrepreneur. She is a committed educator and volunteer, and is dedicated to promoting positive change in the photography industry. Her companies Pixel Cents & Numburu, have revolutionized the way photographers price their products and services and have helped photographers improve their income and lifestyle in 22 countries around the world.


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