Cutting the Thumbnails: An IP Story

Recently my website went down because of problems with the outdated version of WordPress I’ve been using. In the process of refreshing the site, I’ve made one major change, eliminating the thumbnails I have been using on the homepage and when posting my blogs on Twitter and Facebook. Why I did this is a story about intellectual property (IP), and its use and protection.

At the outset, as a creator, I support the concept of intellectual property, and I believe that creators should be compensated for the use of their work that is done under contract with a publisher. A decade ago, I was part of a class action suit launched by the writer Heather Robertson against Thomson Canada on behalf of freelance writers whose newspaper pieces were being posted on Thomson’s electronic databases without compensation to the writers. The Supreme Court of Canada decided in favour of Robertson and, as a consequence, writers received $200 per article.

Extracting the Fee

For my posts about politicians and policy issues I was, naively I now admit, using photos from Google images for my thumbnails. In a post in 2015 about Stephen Harper’s hapless Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino I used a photo of Fantino being confronted by veterans incensed that VA service offices were being closed. Four years later, I received an email from a representative of, acting on behalf of The Canadian Press, asking whether I had licensed the photo and if I hadn’t demanding I remove it and pay a license fee.

Like me, you probably haven’t heard of PicRights, but it represents clients like big media companies that want to be compensated for the use of images they have created. Its FAQs make it clear that PicRights means business and will come after you regardless of the nature of your business model. PicRights uses web crawlers to identify online images owned by its clients and then will prosecute users who haven’t licensed the image. The banner image on PicRights website shows its busy back office, with staff zealously searching for malefactors. After some negotiation, we settled for $250.

After this unpleasant encounter I changed my modus operandi. Instead of leaving all my thumbnails online, I used them only for the most recent dozen posts. The thumbnails would be gone in 6 to 12 weeks. In addition, I looked for images that seemed to be in the public domain, for example on the websites of universities, non-profits, or on Wikipedia.

Last summer, PicRights came knocking again. A year ago, I had used an image of Justin Trudeau from his famous boxing match that appeared in a community newspaper. It turns out that the owner of the image was Reuters Media, part of Thomson Reuters. The image is no longer on my website, but PicRights’ webcrawler found it when it was. In my negotiation with PicRights’ representative, I emphasized that my blog is a labour of love that I have never monetized. The representative was professional, courteous, and as generous as the guidelines allowed. The fee was $162. Had I not settled, the case would have been turned over to an IP lawyer at a major downtown law firm. I didn’t expect any better treatment by them, so I settled with PicRights.

Worth a Thousand Words?

While I was negotiating with PicRights I was also posting blogs about my art collection. It was essential to the content of these posts to include images, but I was protected because the images I was using were photos I had taken.

However, my second encounter with PicRights led to some research and reflection. I consulted some of the non-profit organizations from which I had used images posted on their websites to ask their permission. A university-based NPR-affiliated radio station, said that it wasn’t sure where it got the image and whether it had permission, so it couldn’t give me permission. Thus, asking non-profits for rights to use images posted on their websites was unpromising.

I also investigated online websites of free stock photos and royalty-free images such as Pexels and Unsplash. As a test, I entered Queen Elizabeth and found lots of images of chess pieces and regal women, but exactly zero images of the late British Queen. It would appear that these sites are afraid of copyright violations and/or couldn’t find photographers willing to make their shots of the Queen available royalty-free. And it turned out that WordPress would not accept images from Pexels and Unsplash anyway.

I spoke to US-based bloggers who use images taken from the media and they told me that PicRights has never been on their case. I find this surprising, because, in addition to Canada, PicRights’ website shows that it operates in 21 other countries, one of which is the US.

Though I believe in the principle of IP, I also believe that non-profits should be charged reduced fees for the use of images. In its FAQs, PicRights does say it is willing to reduce fees for non-profits. Unfortunately, the reduced fee of $162 per image (several thousand dollars annually) is still too expensive for a blog that, by design, brings in zero revenue.

I once sat beside David Thomson (son of Kenneth, grandson of Roy), Chairman of Thomson Reuters and Third Baron Thomson of Fleet, at a seminar. I found him as pleasant and progressive as one could expect a multi-billionaire to be. But I don’t want to enrich him or others like him.

Therefore I have decided to stop posting thumbnails on my website. No matter how many words images are worth, I can’t afford the fees, so my words will have to stand on their own.

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