The Weather Channel used some of my photographs without permission. How much should I care?

On Tuesday, Jan. 28, I began one of my journalism classes at Armstrong Atlantic State University with a brief consideration of a newly released “crowd-sourced” video of Neil Young’s recent Carnegie Hall concert. It’s a special topics class about new media’s impact on journalism (a target that shifts daily), and that Neil Young video brought together a number of interesting issues about copyright and intellectual property. Click here to watch the video and find out more about it.

Armstrong was dismissing classes at noon that day because of the impending winter weather. By 12:37, I was back in my office and saw a 12:13 p.m. Facebook message from a former student, who just wanted to make sure that I knew that several of my early January photographs of the partially frozen Forsyth Park fountain had been broadcast on The Weather Channel.

I headed home shortly thereafter and kept one eye on The Weather Channel. Mid-afternoon, somewhat absurdly, The Weather Channel cut away to a correspondent in Forsyth Park, where there wasn’t even any rain, much less freezing rain or snow.

She mentioned that nothing was happening in Savannah yet, but then told viewers that the fountain was frozen just recently. And then several of my photos were shown. I’m not precisely sure which ones they showed, but here are a few from the full set:






My name was not mentioned, nor was this site, Savannah Unplugged. The images weren’t precisely what you see above. The copyright watermark had been cropped off, but my name had been added in the upper right portion of each image.

To anyone who understands anything about design, it’s pretty obvious that cropping out the watermark also compromises the integrity of the composition. So TWC not only used my photos without permission, but they made them worse.

Later on Tuesday, I was catching up on my emails from the day and found that a Senior Assignment Editor from The Weather Channel had emailed me at 9:47 a.m. asking for permission to use some of the images.

So let’s recap:

  • The Weather Channel folks were faced with basically a non-event in Savannah, so they wanted to run photos of icy conditions from three weeks earlier. I wonder how many casual viewers assumed that those pics reflected current conditions?
  • After finding my photos, the editors knew that they should seek my permission for their use. I was emailed at 9:47 a.m.
  • By noon, without hearing from me, the photos appeared on air.
  • Whoever prepared the clip knew that they shouldn’t run photos with a clear copyright watermark, so they cropped that out. At the same time, they knew that I should get credit for the photos, so they added my name elsewhere on the images.
  • After I responded to the initial email, I was apologized to and was offered a clip of the broadcast. On the morning of Jan. 30, I emailed that I would like to get a clip. It’s now Feb. 2 and I haven’t heard a word.

The previous week in one of my classes, I found myself using the term “frantic laziness” to describe the current rush to put stories on the web or on the air. In the endless searches and races for content that will attract consumers, media outlets are cutting corners at almost every turn — and cutting staff too.

So somewhere in the process did The Weather Channel employees missed a crucial principle: We’d like to use these images that clearly belong to someone else, but we cannot do so until we receive his permission.  

Of course, if the editors had been truly focused on satisfying that charge, they could have tried other avenues. The most obvious, by far, would have been to send a message directly to the Facebook page for Savannah Unplugged. I would have seen that before the 11 a.m. class, for sure; it would have showed up as a notification on the Pages app on my iPhone. Or someone could have sent me a message on Facebook and a friend request simultaneously, which would have guaranteed that I’d see the message.

Given the thousands of similar violations of basic copyright and intellectual property law that one can find daily on the internet, what should I do in response, beyond writing this blog post? How much should I care about such flagrant and uncompensated use of my work by a national media outlet?

I actually asked my journalism students for their thoughts on the appropriate response. The responses varied (much like the responses from my Facebook network):

  • Submit an invoice?
  • File a lawsuit?
  • Do something to try to make sure the TWC doesn’t do something like this again?
  • Take advantage of the entire incident as a way of teaching that a photographer does not surrender ownership of photos by posting them online?

I’m still not quite sure what makes the most sense — or what would be worth the time.

But I know this: even in the face of flagrant, widespread, and lazy violations of copyright, we can’t just throw up our hands and surrender.

Ironically, I find that most photographers (especially those with other jobs) tend to be very generous about sharing their work, as long as permission is secured in advance and credit is given as agreed. TWC clearly knows better than to use my photos like this, but what about the students, band members, parents, and others who download and repost images I have captured? Some do so with credit but with no permission, while others take the time to alter the images in various ways. I could list dozens of personal examples over the last couple of years.

So, what next? I’m still not sure.

UPDATE, 2/10:
I’ve had some back and forth emails with a representative of the legal department of The Weather Channel. I now have these elements to add to this post:

  • In the initial noontime airing, just two of my photos were used. They were both vertical ones, and the copyright watermark was not cropped out. Additional photos were used a few hours later and the watermark was cropped, as I note above.
  • Oddly, the first two images had the proportions altered so that the fountain appeared wider than it really is.
  • TWC insists that there was confusion. Someone on the ground in Savannah — a “freelancer” — said that permission to use fountain photos had been obtained, but that person never forwarded photos to the desk or to production.
  • So the folks in production apparently thought that my set of images had been cleared for use.
  • In response to my question about what exactly had allegedly been agreed to when permission was given, I was told that photos are only used on that day, etc.
  • The legal representative also told me, in part: “Viewers provide us with content all day long. ” Of course, I was not a viewer and did not provide any content. Someone went to this website and downloaded images that are clearly owned by me. It strikes me as extremely poor practice for TWC to treat those two situations in the same way regarding communications, permissions, etc.

I have still not made a decision on further actions.

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