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A winning image goes viral, a photographer goes unpaid

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When I was in college and working for the University of Kentucky student newspaper, I was lucky enough to photograph…

When I was in college and working for the University of Kentucky student newspaper, I was lucky enough to photograph two NCAA Final Four games and one National Championship.

In March 2012, I drove to New Orleans with three journalism comrades for the big game. The men’s basketball team had been a heavy favorite going into the tournament. As another photographer had told me in an earlier round, it was ours to lose.

Before we left for New Orleans, two of the newspaper’s staff advisers told me, more or less, that quite a bit of ad revenue was contingent on the photo I got of the team celebrating after a win. They reminded me that if the team won, those photos would be used repeatedly for years down the road.

As a sports journalist, you’re supposed to be completely unbiased. But, to be honest, I wanted my school to keep advancing. I had my own reasons, too. I wanted to be able to photograph an NCAA National Championship game.

I wanted the confetti, the celebration shot and the trophy presentation.

At some point in the game, an official had told the photographers what the protocol was for the final moments of play and immediately following the game. I trust I did what I was told, but autopilot almost completely took over.

Later, after all of the on-court excitement ended, the real work began. Photographers left the court for a work room right inside the tunnel. We had hundreds of photos to edit, caption and send to our editors. Once our work was done, the work for our friends back at home was just beginning. They had celebrations to cover, stories to edit and pages to layout. They made a beautiful newspaper, complete with a full page photo I had taken of the team celebrating together after their big win.

At some point in the following days, I started noticing that photo being shared on Facebook. Initially, it was somewhat gratifying to see my peers using the photo. That feeling wore off pretty quickly.

In this case of copyright infringement, I did not personally lose any money. Because I was employed by a newspaper, they owned the rights to the photograph. Regardless, I was not happy with the photo being used without attribution.

I then saw the photo being used by a local social media marketing website. This crossed a line and was distinctly different from some undergrads using the photo for their personal enjoyment.

I practiced what I would say so I would sound very authoritative and called the person who ran the website to request he take it down. When he did not seem to understand why I would request that, I tried explaining to him how he did not own the rights to use the photo.

He said he would look into it. The company has since moved out of state, and it has started fresh with a new website. All of the old work is gone. But the man I spoke with is still using my photo on his personal Facebook page.

That photo has since made the rounds on various blogs, including one very popular fan site. It was not attributed to me or my newspaper. We were never contacted for licensing or permission.

The use of one basketball image is so minor compared to the war images Yunghi Kim spent countless hours creating or Sara Lewkowicz’s images of domestic violence. These are real, important issues, and their photos can help facilitate discussions about these things.

But theft is still theft, and sports photographers have to earn a living too.