I was recently notified by Pixsy, a photo protection site I subscribe to, that my work was being used potentially without my permission. When I emailed a take down notice to the site, which was using two of my photographs, I received a reply indicating that use was legal, due to the terms and conditions I had agreed to when I had entered the works into a photo competition, and that my photos would continued to be used. 

Afghan National Army counter narcotics unit undergo training

The two images in question were taken during my service in the British Army while on tour in Afghanistan in 2008. When I left the Army in early 2009, despite my passion for photography, I initially had plans to work in the private security industry and had a number of job interviews in the sector. It wasn’t until later in the year that I knuckled down with my camera which led to enough work following which I started calling myself a photographer in 2010. 

These images were uploaded to an account I created on Flickr, a free online hosting service while still contemplating my navel in 2009, and subsequently entered into a photo competition called ‘Why Afghanistan Matters sponsored by NATO Joint Forces Command which ran from December 2009 to May 2010. Under the rules, all contestants agreed to:

“…the unconditional and perpetual right and permission to copyright (as appropriate), reproduce, encode, store, copy, transmit, publish, post, display, adapt, exhibit and/or otherwise use or reuse (without limitation as to when or the number of times used, the submitted photograph in any media throughout the world for any purpose, without limitation, and without additional review, compensation (except if required by law), or approval from the Entrant or any other party.” 

It is important to note neither did I win, nor did I place. However merely by submitting my images Afghanistan Matters are legally permitted to offer my work under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence from which it was uploaded and being used by a third party, Wikimedia Commons (a small consolation is the fact I am credited for the image). And this is the heart of the matter; my work is now legally being used by a party I did not authorise and over which I have no control, for a decision I made over a decade ago. As a layperson I was guilty of a cardinal sin at which I now cringe; a lack of knowledge and understanding of copyright. At its heart copyright belongs to the creator at time of creation and may be waived but can not be claimed or seized and by submitting my images to Afghanistan Matters I waived my rights to these works. In one foul, and naive, swoop I lost control and potential earnings to a third party under the guise of a photo competition for free.

However the kicker is this, even if I had understood copyright at the time, would it have bothered me and would I have decided not to enter the competition? Honestly, I don’t know. As a professional soldier at the time the image was taken, my interest in photography was to document my time in Afghanistan. I had returned from summering in Iraq in 2003 with, at best, mediocre photographs and I had been upset at my lack of skill behind a camera. I therefore had made a conscious effort to develop my passion for photography and in particular to work at composition and reportage. Fast forward to becoming a civilian in 2009 and my reasons for entering the work into the competition then were the same as many amateurs and hobbyists today. I was looking for validation that my work was of a certain standard and stood up to public scrutiny. In other words had all my time and effort paid off? Did my work compare to a professional and was I good enough to be one?

Photographic rights grabs are now commonplace and regularly conducted by such brands as Apple and National Geographic who, despite their size and pockets (National Geographic is owned by Disney), prefer to exert pressure in order to use work for free or below market rates. Indeed such #RightsGrab T&Cs have become the default terms of some competitions and photography platforms.The irony is such T&Cs drive away professionals who understand the value of their work, but attract amateurs who often do not. Some claim as such T&Cs are now common place it serves no purpose to argue against them and that any loss is offset by the exposure of entering and potentially winning. The counter argument is why give your work away to be commercialised by brands, often with deep pockets and global reach, for free? So before you enter a photo to a competition, stop and think; have you read the T&Cs, do you really know what you’re getting in to and do you think you’ll still be happy with that decision in the future?