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Finnish photographer warns of online retailers "copying" private photos

A photographer was surprised to find an online retailer selling household fabrics with the image of her cat.

Photographer Adalmina Ollanketo found that several pictures of her cat had been used without her permission. Image: Adalmina Ollanketo

24-year old photographer Adalmina Ollanketo was in for a shock when she came across bed linens with the image of a familiar-looking cat in a certain Facebook group. It later turned out that the feline in question was her very own pet, Minttu.

"I created a Facebook post to investigate and found out that the very same picture had also been used on other products," Ollanketo said.

Ollanketo realised that apart from sheets, the photo had been printed on hoodies, mousepads and decorative wall hangings on online retail sites such as Wish, Aliexpress, Amazon and eBay.

The 24-year-old sleuth speculated that the photo was plucked from the DeviantArt website, an online service popular among artists and to which she had contributed photos 10 years ago.

"I was so shocked about those sheets. I knew that the photo had been previously copied for products like wall hangings but I wasn’t expecting this. Others are stealing and making money from work that I’ve done. I personally don’t benefit from my work," she declared.

Ollanketo’s story was first reported by the Oulu-based daily Kaleva (siirryt toiseen palveluun) (€).

When the young photographer wrote about her experience on Facebook, many readers said that she had taken a risk by publishing her photos on the social channel. However she noted that publishing photos is part of a photographer’s work.

"Pictures are need for marketing. We cannot get clients if we don’t publish photos and provide information about ourselves. Photographers can’t stay in hiding, photos must be visible because of the profession," she declared.

A screenshot from the retail website, Wish. Image: Kuvakaappaus Wishilta

Although people share photos via public channels that doesn’t mean that can be freely copied. Photographers have exclusive rights over the photos they take, noted Jenny Rontu, co-founder legal tech startup Someturva.

"Using someone else’s photo without permission is a violation of the photographer’s copyright. The photographer has exclusive rights over their photos," Rontu noted.

Everything can end up in the wrong hands

Everything that is shared publicly in online platforms is also in danger of ending up in the wrong hands, pointed out social psychologist and media researcher Suvi Uski.

"You lose full control over your content the second it goes online. People can take screenshots of content and there are also apps that save everything that is shared on a platform," she explained.

The increased use of social media and increases the misuse of photos, Rontu added.

"The prevalence of the problem is also evident given that different digital services have emerged to help [people] determine if their photos have been misused online," she continued.

Use a watermark

Ollanketo said that she intends to contact the website and merchant of the household items in a bid to receive compensation for the use of her cat’s likeness on the products. She said that she had previously been involved in a battle with internet giant Amazon and knows that the she may end up empty handed.

"You can’t really ask the merchants to do anything beyond removing the products from sale. There are many such pictures around and it’s a big job. I don’t really know whether or not I’ll even get them removed at all."

She said that in future she will consider using a watermark on her photos and she called on others to think about ways to ensure that their photos are not misused in other parts of the world.

"You have to safeguard your rights. Photos can be cropped or watermarks can be used, for example. After this I may be forced to use such measures."

Check to see who has rights to your content

Some social media platforms in particular ask users to hand over copyright of their content to the service provider. In practice this means that the platform can use images and information for purposes such as data analysis.

Uksi pointed out that different applications have wildly varying practices. Users need to be proactive and should themselves check their privacy and user rights settings. She said that it is now routine for platforms to listen in to users’ conversations.

"It’s good to switch off microphones, deny permissions for photos and location data. The rule of thumb should be to not divulge anything extra about yourself. It’s not too late to draw the line and to begin protecting personal privacy right away," the researcher added.

Uski said she hoped that people would always try to hold people to account for misusing photos in cases similar to Ollanketo’s.

"If there is a situation where something must be taken offline, it would make sense to contact the service provider. If we’re talking about sensitive material then it would be best to contact the police," she concluded.