In a post from earlier today, Matt Growcoot at PetaPixel tells the story of the Italian photographer Davide Francese, who appears to have won several awards for his photography using images that he did not take.
According to the article, Francese submitted numerous photos to the WPE Awards, a France-based international competition that, among other things, names its top 100 photographers in the world out of their over 11,000-plus members.
Though some of the images appear to be his, or at least haven’t had their source identified, at least nine were taken from outside sources. This included eight from fellow photographer Alex Koloskov and one taken (and modified) from the free stock photo site PIxabay.
And some of those stolen images won awards. In 2020, the modified Pixabay image took the silver badge in the Wedding Details category. Another photo by Koloskov took third place in the 2023 Commercial Category.
All in all, his successes were enough to earn him the rank of 32nd in the world and the 2nd in his country. He was also ranked 25th in this year’s competition.
However, now his page is removed and much of his work has been scrubbed from the WPE site. This came after PetaPixel emailed WPE seeking comment on the story.
While this might seem to be a closed matter, what makes this case interesting is Francese’s response. According to him, he purchased a tutorial by Koloskov on the site Photigy, he claims that he didn’t know he couldn’t use the images included in the tutorial this way.
Though it’s easy to mock that misunderstanding both the laws and ethics around photography, it is not an unique misinterpretation. It’s one that If aced repeatedly in the early years of my fight against plagiarism.
When Plagiarists Win Awards
I began my personal fight against plagiarism in 2002 when I discovered widespread plagiarism (and infringement) of my work, including short stories, poetry and other literature.
This discovery started me on a path that had me learn a great deal about both the laws and the ethics that surround plagiarism. That, in turn, led to the launch of Plagiarism Today and my consulting/expert witness practice.
But as I was tracking plagiarism of my work, one theme kept reemerging: People winning awards with my work.
Many of the awards were on sites like AllPoetry.com, though others were in high school and college literary magazines, other poetry publications and virtually anywhere someone could submit a poem or short story for a prize.
Fortunately, very few (if any) involved cash prizes, and most were good about revoking the awards when notified of the plagiarism. But it was still one of the most awkward and surreal parts of those early years, seeing my work winning impressive-sounding awards under someone else’s name.
That, in turn, made me identify strongly with Koloskov. It’s a surreal experience, and it’s both flattering and frustrating at the same time. In an interview with PetaPixel, he said jokingly, “I feel proud. I never understood why guys like him are doing this. Good images will always find their owner….”
That is a sentiment I understand well.
However, even more familiar was Francese’s response. He claimed that he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong. While I find that dubious for a myriad of reasons, it’s also a familiar refrain.
And it’s a refrain that we have to stop now.
The Sense of Entitlement
To be clear, Francese’s belief that he was allowed to use the images represents a major misunderstanding of both the law and the ethics of being a photographer and entering works into photography contests.
The simple act of purchasing a copy of a copyright-protected work, such as a photograph, does not give you the copyright to it. You own a copy of that work, not the right to make more copies, create derivative works based upon it or any of the other rights that are exclusive to the copyright holder.
However, even if it did, the rules of the WPE competition clearly state, “The Entrant must present in their entirety a unique work emanating from an original image capture.” This means, quite simply, that the submitter must be the one to take the image.
In short, the competition is meant to be a contest of the skill of the photographer, not a test of what images the photographer could source.
But if that was Francese’s belief, he would not be alone with it. There are many out there who do feel a sense of entitlement to the fruit of another’s labor. Though Francese paid for Koloskov, many extend that sense of entitlement to any work they find, whether they paid for it or not.
This is further shown by Francese using the work from Pixabay. While such work is free to copy and use, including without attribution, it still is not his work to submit for a contest, at least not without clear disclosure.
Whether Francese genuinely believes that or not is unimportant. The fact is that there are many who do and, if you operate a creative contest, you need to be aware that they exist and will likely submit work to it, no matter how big or small the contest may seem.
As such, it’s important to take steps to guard against plagiarism.
The most frustrating part of this story is how easily it could have been prevented. According to the original article, all of the duplicate images were easily found using Google Lens to detect similar images.
It seems as if even a basic check for plagiarized images would have detected most of these and sounded alarms about this particular photographer.
Though WPE seems to have done relatively well in scrubbing Francese from their site (though some traces remain) the important conversation is what, if anything, they will do different moving forward.
First, they would be wise to further clarify their contest rules. Though they make it clear that images should be original captures, it would be better to clearly spell out what exactly they mean by that.
Second, they should implement a process for checking images for plagiarism. If these images are meant to be originals and never seen elsewhere before, this should be straightforward to do. All one has to do is simply not allow images with duplicates elsewhere on the internet.
If they are allowing previous publication, it may take longer, but it should still be possible to verify that it is from the author claiming the image.
That wouldn’t catch every plagiarist, but it would capture a large percentage and force those wanting to cheat the contest to actually work at it. As it is, it appears anyone can submit any image to WPE and not be called on it, unless some third-party calls out the similarities.
That should never be the case for any creative contest, in particular one trying to name the top photographers in the world.