Photographer Gets Plagiarized then Censored

Aricle Updated: See Below

Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir is heralded as one of the top photographers on the photo-sharing site Flickr. Guðleifsdóttir, a native of Iceland, is well known for her self-portraits as well as her surreal landscapes.

However, she recently discovered that a photo printing site had not only posted several of her works under a false name (Yahoo! Cache Version), but was selling prints of those photos in their store. A search through their Ebay store turned up approximately £2,500 (about $5,000) in sold prints, all with her work.

Seeking repayment, Guðleifsdóttir turned to a local attorney who sent the company a stern letter. The company removed the works from their site and then fell quiet. No future correspondence was returned and Guðleifsdóttir, a single mother and a college student, was left footing the bill for the lawyer.

Understandably upset at this outcome, Guðleifsdóttir vented her frustration in her Flickr account.

The story struck a chord with the Flickr community. It quickly reached the front page of Digg (earning over 4000 Diggs) and the entry generated well over 400 comments.

However, the original entry was to be short lived. Only hours after it hit the front page of Digg, Yahoo!, who owns Flickr, removed the post. According to Guðleifsdóttir, Yahoo! cited alleged terms of service violations.

That, in turn, has kicked off another storm of controversy with many criticizing Yahoo!’s move as censorship.

But in addition to being an interesting case of plagiarism gone awry, the story also serves to illustrate many of the challenges that arise when trying to protect your works on the Web.

The Other Side of The Story

The photo printing site at the center of the controversy, Only-Dreemin UK, says that the story actually begins a good while before Guðleifsdóttir discovered her works were stolen.

In Only-Dreemin’s version of the story, they were approached about six months ago by an company known as “Wild Aspects and Panoramics LTD” that offered to sell them republishing rights on high-resolution landscaping images. After some negotiations and about £3000.00 (just under $6,000) paid to the company, the deal was done and Only-Dreemin started production.

Two weeks ago the company received a letter from the Icelandic law firm hired by Guðleifsdóttir. Only-Dreemin looked into the matter, found that the works were indeed hers, removed them from their site and then destroyed all prints that they had.

They realized that they had been scammed. Only-Dreemin attempted to contact the company that had sold them the works, but all of the contact information form them was no longer valid.

According to Only-Dreemin, they contacted their lawyer, who advised them to comply with the requests from Guðleifsdóttir’s law firm, which they did, and then keep quiet, which they also did.

It appears that Guðleifsdóttir mistook Only-Dreemin’s silence, which was the product of legal advice they obtained, as another act of a “dishonest company”. That, in turn, prompted her to post her original article on Flickr.

If Only-Dreemin’s account is to be believed, it seems that they were victims too and that a lack of communication, as much as copyright infringement, is to blame for the controversy.

The only problem with Only-Dreemin’s account is that, according to Guðleifsdóttir, she and her attorney tried several times to get Only-Dreemin to provide some proof of this seller. However, even after repeated attempts at contact, Only-Dreemin failed to produce any evidence that they even exist, much less sold them the works.

While this might have been part of their lawyer’s strategy to remain silent, it would seem simple enough to produce a a canceled check, a reciept or some other kind of proof that such a transaction took place.

As of yet though, none has been provided.

Flickr Makes a Flub

Though the plagiarism and copyright issues were enough to get many people upset, Yahoo!, if by accident, threw gasoline on the fire when they deleted the original blog post.

In their contact with Guðleifsdóttir, they explained the deletion with the following statement:

“Flickr is not a venue for to you harass, abuse, impersonate, or intimidate others. If we receive a valid complaint about your conduct, we will send you a warning or
terminate your account.”

Though it is unclear what harassment, abuse, impersonation or intimidation the post was allegedly guilty of, Only-Dreemin did report receiving several death threats over the matter. It is likely that, even though the post itself was completely non-violent, that the removal stemmed from those actions.

However, Yahoo! did admit that they made a mistake with the takedown and restored Guðleifsdóttir’s blog, however, as of this writing, the original post has not been restored and still shows a “deleted” page.

But despite the apology and the admission of the mistake, it appears that the “Flickr Censorship” controversy is not going to die down any time soon. It too reached the front page of Digg and seems to have taken on a life of its own.

Lessons to be Gleaned

When it comes to dealing with plagiarism and content theft issues on the Web, this long and winding tale has several interesting points to keep in mind.

  1. Going Public is Very Risky: I’ve spoken many times before why going public with a plagiarism fight is risky. In addition to legal issues such as libel and harassment, one also has to consider the energy that will be expended in going that route and the effect it can have on your reputation. Add to all of that potential consequences from one’s host if they consider the public statement to be a violation of their terms of use. Note: I am not saying that Guðleifsdóttir made the wrong decision, there are times it is appropriate, just that we have to consider this potential consequence as well. I really do not know how I would have handled this if I had been in her position.
  2. Communication is Key: Whether you are the one being plagiarized or the one being accused of it, communication is critical. It is possible that much of this public controversy could have been resolved if Only-Dreemin had simply attempted to work things out in good faith rather than trying to shut Guðleifsdóttir away. It is important to listen to your attorney, but it is also important to realize that they are not PR experts and are, usually, only thinking of legal consequences.
  3. Terms of Use Are Subjective: Though the DMCA provides rigid guidance for hosts when dealing with copyright infringement, the guidance for matters of harassment and other TOS violations are generally less clear. Those guidelines will vary wildly from one site to the next and even from one abuse agent to the next at the same company. Sadly, there is often no telling what one person will deem harassment or abuse.
  4. Be Careful From Where You Buy: Whenever buying content, especially to sell, be extremely careful where you purchase it from. Check out the seller thoroughly, make sure they have a good track record and have no complaints against them. A little research can, sometimes, save a lot of headache.
  5. Beware Your Own Power: Remember that on the Web anything can take off and cause a major storm. Even if you don’t think you have a lot of clout, something on your blog or site can quickly attract tens of thousands of readers. That is important to keep in mind when venting about frustrations with content theft.

All in all, this whole affair makes for a great case study in how plagiarism-related matters are handled on the Web and can offer many lessons to improve the handling out right avoid such matters in the future.

Hopefully those lessons will be taken to heart by everyone following it.


The end result of all of this is a lot of devestation. Only-Dreemin has taken their store completely off the Web. Flickr’s reputation has taken a servere hit, their second reputation blow in recent memory and, despite her preexisting fame, Guðleifsdóttir will always likely be associated, on some level, with this controversy and will be known better known, in some circles, for being the victim of plagiarism than for being a talented photographer.

The whole ordeal has created a barren wasteland of reputations in its wake and, most likely, even the victim won’t survive completely unscathed. It is unfortunate given the situation, but true.

However, it is clear that mistakes were made, especially on Only-Dreemin and Flickr’s side. But only time and further information will tell what it was really behind those bad decisions.

Because, while not saying anything will keep you out of court, but it may not keep you in business. Likewise, removing a post that is generating some harassing and threatening email may keep you from being sued, but it won’t protect you when your users cry censorship.

This exact kind of storm is exactly what companies try to avoid yet, sometimes, they accidentally walk right into them or, worse yet, create one from the ground up.

Update 4:30 PM: I heard back from Guðleifsdóttir a few moments ago. She explained to me that Only-Dreemin has been pushed on several occasions to provide proof of the buyer’s existance. So far they have not done so. Since this information changes the entire article the entire work has been updated throughout with changes reflecting this new information. I will post further updates as they come in. 

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