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What To Do When A Celebrity Uses Your Image Without Permission

By Hanssie on September 23rd 2014

Copyright Infringement Is All Too Common

Copyright infringement. It happens every day and with the age of the Pinterest, Instagram, and all other social media, sharing an image that is not properly sourced or used without permission is far too common. What happens, though, if a high profile public figure uses your image and shares it with her 2.5 million fans on the internet?

Should you be flattered? Should you be angry? Should you figure out a way to contact the celebrity and ask for credit of your image? And what if the celebrity’s public apology was not quite so apologetic?



Stephey Baker’s Situation

This is the situation that Stephey Baker found herself in. Her beautiful image of a butterfly lifting a stone was sent to celebrity trainer Jillian Michaels by a fan. Jillian apparently reposted it onto her page. The image originally had Stephey’s watermark and copyright information on it, but was long gone, possibly in the posting and re-posting of the image as it passed through the vast sea of Internet clicks.

Awake Butterfly by Stephey Baker - - Image Used With Permission

Awake Butterfly by Stephey Baker – – Image Used With Permission

Like any photographer probably would’ve done, Stephey contacted Jillian’s customer service and requested attribution. Jillian’s customer service said they couldn’t help her, and she received numerous emails stating that since she wasn’t an online member, nothing could be done. Not wanting to pursue it further, Stephey let it go.

Until, out of nowhere it seemed, she began getting hostile messages and emails, bashing her and her photography. Upon further investigation, Stephey found this posted on Jillian’s Facebook page:


Out of the almost 5,000 comments on this thread, a majority of them followed the tone of Jillian’s initial post. The fans predictably stood up for Jillian, and immediately began name-calling and rude remarks, criticizing Stephy for “demanding” an apology. Comments such as:

  • Stephy needs to lighten up and if she doesn’t want her art shared, she should keep it off the net. Classy though, you apologizing.
  • What a missed opportunity for the artist – she could have retweeted and said “Jillian Michaels tweeted my art!” #positivityalwayswins
  • Bet Stephey Baker didn’t realize this would backfire like this LOL. Yeah you‘ll be remembered now but not for your artwork but instead for being a whiney a**!

How Should A Photographer Respond When Their Work Is Being Used Without Attribution?

As photographers, we understand attribution. We understand, somewhat, the laws of copyright and image rights and usage. Whether an image is used innocently, or stolen maliciously, the original image creators have the burden of trying to make a living in the midst of our work being freely shared, and the general public not understanding what the “big deal” is. A quick glance through the comment thread is proof of people’s lack of knowledge of image sharing/copyright laws.

A handful of people, mainly photographers, did chime in defense of Stephey on the thread. Many were quickly dismissed, but in one case, Jillian responded, showing that she too, has little understanding of proper attribution for a photographer.


Stephey later commented in the thread. She did not jump in on the melee, but simply said her piece.

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 8.06.20 AM

**At the time of writing, an email requesting a comment from Jillian Michaels’ team, had not been answered.

Thoughts on Online Misbehavior

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at allas the old adage goes. Yet, it doesn’t seem to apply to our online behavior. It is easier and easier to hide behind a keyboard these days. Every day we see comments from “trolls,” loudly voicing their opinions, disrespectfully, with malice and hostility, and not a thought to the fact that there is a “real” person on the other side. Most of these people would not actually say their negative and hateful remarks to someone’s face, but with the ease and anonymity of the Internet, some people feel like they have free reign.

On a daily basis, I see remarks on forums bashing photographers and their work, and moderators coming in to warn members about criticism. Pye, our Editor-In-Chief has written a poignant article on HOW HATERS ARE DESTROYING THE PHOTOGRAPHY INDUSTRY, but sadly, this goes way beyond the photographic industry.

Stephey chose to address the onslaught of hostility politely, gracefully and not join in on the negativity or add fuel to the fire. In this specific case, the infringer just so happened to be a celebrity with a very large platform to voice her opinion. But the process of how to handle copyright infringement is the same…

So, What Should You Do If You Find Your Work Used Without Permission?

1. First, make sure you are educated in your rights and how to protect yourself against copyright infringement. Check out these articles to get you started.

2. Make sure the image is indeed yours and save an image of it (screen shot) for proof.

3. Contact the person who used your image and inform them that your image is being used without permission. Be polite and mindful that perhaps it was in error that your image was used. In other words, give them at least ONE chance to play nice and be polite. This can do a lot more to encourage them to comply, compared to your very first contact being a horrible, nasty one.

  • You can prepare a DCMA take down notice or a cease and desist/demand letter.
  • You can hire a lawyer to send a letter

4. Depending on the circumstances, you may consider filing a copyright infringement lawsuit, especially if the infringer is using your work commercially.


Unfortunately, This situation is something we as photographers run into on a daily basis. As a photographer, it is not a matter of if your work will be used without your permission, but when. Taking steps to protect yourself and your work is about the best you can do, and when it happens, try taking the high road, as Stephey did.

I shrug it off as a fluke moment and momentary lapse of consciousness on the infringer’s part.

This is a good reminder for the rest of us to remember to watermark your images, and add the copyright information in the Exif Data. A watermark can be easily removed, but it may deter some from using your work without proper credit given.

**UPDATE 9/23/14: As of this evening, it looks like the post was deleted off Jillian’s Facebook page**


If you were in Stephey’s shoes, what would you have done in this situation? Was Jillian Michael’s out of line with her Facebook post?  How do you protect your images? Leave your thoughts in the comment below.




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Hanssie is a Southern California-based writer and sometimes portrait and wedding photographer. In her free time, she homeschools, works out, rescues dogs and works in marketing for SLR Lounge. She also blogs about her adventures and about fitness when she’s not sick of writing so much. Check out her work and her blog at Follow her on Instagram

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Filipe Brandão

    I recently read an article on Ming Thein’s blog, where he reports a similar case:
    One of his images was used on Pentax Ricoh Indonesia site without credit, promoting Ricoh GR camera. He contacted Ricoh Indonesia and upon failing to get any satisfaction or apologies he took it up to HQ in Japan. Ricoh Senior Management wrote an apology and ultimately he considered the matter resolved.
    In the end it turns out that the agency in charge of developing the site used the image without any consent from the photographer and Ricoh Indonesia didn’t bother to ask if such consent was obtained.
    When agencies like that don’t recognize this kind of rights or even the need to credit other people’s work, its hard to expect that others less knowledgeable of image rights have any sympathy for photographers.

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  2. Jeff Morrison

    Isn’t it true once you post a photo to “Facebook” Doesn’t Facebook own the rights to the photo. I will not post anything that i care about or ever want not shared to Facebook for that reason. you will never have any control over your photo.

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    • Adam Lasater

      that’s technically correct, but Facebook’s ownership is promotion to their own goods. I don’t think they’re allowed to use individual’s photos to promote third party goods.

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    • Adam Lasater

      Nice article Hanssie. I saw this and it convinced me to join SLR Lounge. Good work!

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    • Jeff Morrison

      So doesn’t that mean if you post a photo on Facebook and someone takes that photo and re-posts it to their Facebook page….Facebook still owns the said photo even if it is a third party on Facebook.

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    • John Cavan

      Facebook licensing is a bit murky. Basically, in order to be able to serve up the image on their system, they need you to license them to distribute the image in a global context via their network. In order to enable the sharing mechanism, they need you to license them to sublicense it which allows them the ability to license another to share your work.

      You can revoke the first license grant, technically, by removing the original image in accordance with their own agreement. However, if it has been shared, that is now been irrevocably sub-licensed and there’s nothing you can do about it.

      I still post on Facebook, I just make sure that what I do post has been scaled and adjusted so that it’s not really all that usable outside that context. Technically, Facebook could run off and sell prints, but 4×6 editions are not going to move like hot cakes… :) Having said that, if they can’t figure out how to effectively monetize this service they may grasp at that straw.

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    • Jeff Morrison

      John I like your comment. As a sports photographer I want to show my work but I do so in a very limited way as most people don’t buy prints (some do) so I just post teasers and hopefully the come to my site to view and buy.

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  3. dimitris stilio

    I am very sorry to say this but I really think you are all biased here for this case. Maybe because you are all professional photographers (I haven’t quitted my morning job yet).
    I have some thoughts that are more like questions:
    If this lady was not famous (she is completely unknown where I live), would the photographer contact her?
    Did she ask for attribution also any other users that posted the image – without the watermark – before and after this famous lady?
    Why the photographer asked and expected this famous lady & her team to act for attribution, but stayed only there?
    Why the photographer didn’t simply ask this lady’s team to help her to find out who was the one that initially tweeted the image to this lady? (it was a repost, a share)
    Instead of asking for attribution, I would expect her to try and find out who was the one that removed the watermark and act only against him with any legal means she can.

    By asking for attribution only the famous one and not hunting the guy that is actually responsible for this, I think is like saying: “free advertisement for my work because you are famous. I don’t actually care about who stole my picture, who cares about the initial crime? Who cares also about all the other users of this social site that also share my picture? I only care about getting some projection through a social profile of someone famous”.
    I also post nice pictures from times to times.
    Pictures that I find around in the internet. Shall I first search the whole internet to see if someone modified this picture and removed the watermark? It’s impossible.
    Internet is a new mean (well…not that new anymore) and we need to learn to live with it. Copyright laws will be continiously violated in internet. It’s inevitable.

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    • John Cavan

      Given that the Photographer was actually willing to just let it go when it was all said and done and Jillian Michaels decided to take it public, I’m not really sure your questions have much meaning. Until that Facebook posting, there was only the two parties in the know.

      Either way, why is the victim in this, the one that had her creative efforts taken without permission, the one at fault here? How many other take-down notices she’s sent to others, and what other efforts she has taken to find the original thief is irrelevant. She is still absolutely entitled to request that her work be attributed, it is her work and Jillian Michaels still has no inherent rights to it no matter how it came to her attention.

      In any case, the request was pretty simple, it could have been handled so much more nicely with a simple caption update that attributed the image. That’s all she asked for. How do you suppose Jillian Michaels might react if somebody just started handing out free copies of her videos to everybody? I’m pretty sure it would have been a LOT more aggressive than this.

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    • Michael Hussey

      I think your questions have meaning, but they are complicated. When an image becomes shared by a good number of people, if they do it right, it is trackable on facebook. If they do it wrong, it becomes much harder. What should one do? Do the best you can and use judgement about if it’s worth your time.

      If a famous person shares it is it more worth it to fight? Yes, because that is much more exposure. Exposure in this situation is generally not good, unless it is an audience that corresponds to your market. Such as if you’re a baby photographer in New York and your pic is posted in a NYC Mom’s group. Otherwise, normally, all it does is dilute your image and make it less likely that someone will buy it for stock purposes, etc… One famous person sharing your image can turn it into hundred entries on a google image search, which makes it much more likely to be illegally used and much LESS likely someone will be willing to pay to use it. There is currently no easy way to put the genie back in the bottle and have your name be attributed to an image once that happens. If there was, maybe this wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I think google is the only who could come up with a solution, or maybe a getty-google partnership or something like that (so it would actually be used).

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  4. Robynn Winkelman

    As a law student with full intents to delve into the world of intellectual property law I find any story of copyright infringement fascinating. I also have a good laugh about Michael’s comment about others posting pictures of her and her children since she, as the subject, does not own those photos necessarily. I also think photographers should keep in mind that there are exceptions to the rule and others can use your photography in some situations without permission or compensating the photographer. Right now there is some lively debate on the use of images for Internet memes. This use does not appear to be one of the accepted uses and Michael’s response is far from professional. It’s a shame to see a public figure who should have her own copyright concerns promoting this behavior.

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  5. Austin Swenson

    I think that the vast majority of people outside of the digital media world aren’t really well versed in copyright law and rights of use when it comes to this kind of thing, and so it’s not really a surprise that we have these cases all the time where people get their images stolen and used in other places, but I think that were I in the place of Jillian, I would at least ask someone about image copyright and the like before I trashed this person on the internet…

    I also don’t think it’s in good taste to trash someone over the internet unless it’s for something obviously bad like child molesting, murder, etc. Being critical of people invites others to be critical of you, and sometimes that means a crapstorm.

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  6. Peter Nord

    The only comment with meaning is that she needs to contact an intellectual property lawyer. You wouldn’t ask a photographer how to remove an appendix, why would you ask one for legal advice.

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  7. Kasun Meegahapola


    Hi Hanssie,

    Thank you very much for your information about my copyright question. To explain more about scenario 1 is suppose you go to a concert of a famous singer (Lets take Elton John) for example. And you take photos of the concert including closeups. My worry is to post them on my social media like Flickr / Facebook with my copyright is an offence or not?

    Scenario 2 is i covered a sporting event of a friend of mine and post some pics in my social media. This was totally done for friendship. But one guy who was in one of the photos made a comment (probably for joke) that he is going to take legal action for posting his photo on social media without his permission. even though it sound like a joke i deleted all the photos of that event from my social media. I felt very bad since there were some of my fav shots.

    With these experience it is very tough selecting what photos to be shared in social media. anyways I will go though the link you shared and find out more.

    Thanks again for the reply,

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    • Richard Olender

      For scenario 2 based on my limited knowledge of Canadian law

      You cannot assume privacy in a public place
      A sporting event is a public place therefor you have the right to publish photos without the permission of the people in the photos
      Look at it this way….Your local news is covering an event downtown…Can they really be expected to have signed releases from everyone who walks into the camera’s field of view?

      I’m guessing for scenario 1 that if the ticket does not say “No Cameras” Then you have the right to post them…Again I’m just guessing here

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    • Chuck Eggen

      True enough Richard but doesn’t media fall under a different line of liability?

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    • Michael Hussey

      Your clarification actually complicates the issue. Your pics of a famous person are yours. Usually you can do anything you want with them short of using them to sell a product, endorse a product (including an idea), disparage their image/character, publish/edit their identity in an untruthful way, etc.. Note that using the image in an artistic way (such as the image IS the art) such as in your portfolio is NOT considered selling a product, since it is clear that the subject/celebrity is not endorsing the art.

      BUT if you’ve taken the image in a private controlled environment, such as a concert, the rights to that imagery might actually be controlled by whomever put on the show (or the arena). The same is true for sporting events if they are professional. The reasoning behind that can be thought of as the show is THEIR artwork, and your photos are simply capturing a part of that. Whether that be an Elton John show or the NFL Monday night football.

      You can ALWAYS do what you want with them, but some uses may open you up to lawsuits. If the use is casual and no harm is generally caused to the subjects, such as the uses you’re talking about, the management probably won’t see any reason to do anything. And if they did, the most they’d do is ask you to take them down.

      If the subject is newsworthy, and you’re publishing them in a news capacity, you generally have the right to do that and would not opening yourself up to a lawsuit at all unless something about it is untruthful or substantially misleading.

      Their are exceptions for extreme examples in all of these cases, but I generally covered it I think.

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  8. Pye

    You’d think that a public figure as big as Jillian would know the power of a sarcastically written post like that designed to tear down a simple photographer, Stephey Baker. Jillian essentially got online, and used her power to start a witch hunt in a situation where Jillian herself or her company, were the ones technically in the wrong. To respond in an unkind manner via email or letter would be one thing, but to use the weight of her social media presence to tear down another person is predatory behavior that I am frankly shocked by. Almost reminds of something that would happen in high school.

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  9. Kim Farrelly

    Wow, this Jillian Michael girl, Yea I had to Google her too, sounds like the real witch (with a capital B) here, egging on her sheep to protect her ego and give her stance some justice. Pitiful behaviour.

    On a technical note Facebook strips out your EXIF data when you upload an image to ‘protect your privacy’.
    Seems like there is a cultural change happening, for quite some time now, on how freely content can be shared about the internet & it’s in favour of the social sites interests in monetising their products. With that morality in place it’s no wonder the general public freely shares without the onus to give due credit. I think bigger changes need to happen before any reversal of this trend will occur.

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    • Chuck Eggen

      I agree. It’s unfortunate since for so many of us social media is really the only way to share work.

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  10. John Cavan

    I have no idea what was exchanged privately between the two parties, but the advantage of it being private is that nobody needs to come out damaged in the exchange.

    The way Jillian chose to use her public weight to lash out at Stephey is where it falls down and so “fans” with little clue (some of the reasoning is mind boggling) are lashing out and defaming Stephey and, in my opinion, now damaging the reputation of Jillian in the process. So, now both of them have real public damage and all because Jillian decided to take it public in a snarky fashion. Further evidence that fame doesn’t grant wisdom.

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    • Hanssie

      ” Further evidence that fame doesn’t grant wisdom.”

      Truth…and there are many, many, many stars that prove this time and time again. I’d name names, which would make this comment funnier, but you guys know what (and who) I’m talking about.

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    • Eric Mazzone

      Exactly, JM opened herself up to a libel suit.

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  11. Kiel MacDonald

    I’ve had minor ‘celebrities’ (10k fans on FB) and professional affiliates (pro sports team affiliates) use or share my photos. Obviously the pro sports team affiliate was professional and went about it in the right way (credit, tagging, info, etc.). Most people on FB that shared my photo kept the WM and gave credit appropriately. Occasionally, though, someone will post my photo after it is cropped, altered, etc. and not give credit. I typically just comment with a link to my info and move on.

    I don’t know what went on but neither party needed/needs to publicly lash out at the other. That seems unprofessional and ill advised for both parties. It’s also amazing to see how people are commenting “she should have watermarked the image” as if it was unheard of that someone cropped it or removed it somehow before sharing… victim blaming still nice and strong on social media i see.

    Jillian also made an unfair comparison of photos of her and her family when comparing it to the image that Stephey created. The comparison should have been “I don’t legally go after pirated versions of my videos or products”, since it’s the “copyrighted works” that is the issue, not the subject matter. Most likely the photos being shared of Jillian are legally not hers in the first place, but rather the copyright of the photographer, publisher, magazine, ad company, etc. That could be wrong, as I have no idea what her contracts are like, but in general I would assume that’s the case.

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  12. Joram J

    Jillian Michaels, who?

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  13. Scott Kuo

    I wonder if the Horde Jillian Michael fans will attack this post.

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    • Hanssie

      If they knew about it, probably…but you guys will protect me, right? :)

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  14. Kasun Meegahapola

    I’m quite not sure how these copyright works;

    Scenario 1 – If I take photos on an exhibition which is done by public figures do these images belong to me or do I need to take permission from those public figures to post them on my social media or my blog?

    Scenario 2 – If someone asks me verbally to cover their sports event or a party do I need to take written permission to post them on my social media or my blog?

    Really appreciate if you could explain what kind of rights a photographer has..

    Thanks in advance..

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    • Hanssie

      Hi Kasun,

      I’m not a lawyer, so my first piece of advice would be to consult a lawyer who knows copyright laws.

      I am unclear about Scenario 1, I am not totally familiar with the laws of that so I don’t want to tell you wrong. That makes me want to go research it and write an article about it!

      Scenario 2 – I would always, always have a model release signed if possible. And a contract. Gotta protect yourself. This is a good place to start on researching copyright issues:
      Hope that helps a little.

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    • Dave Lyons

      Scenario 1 – If you’re on public property you can do as you wish (within reason…aka, not standing on street taking pix of them naked through window), if it’s private property then i’d assume its a whole nother issue

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  15. Greg Faulkner

    How would she like it if we all downloaded her videos for free from somewhere. How would she pay her useless PR people then?

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  16. Nick DiGiallonardo

    Jillian Michael’s seems to have been out of line with her Facebook post, but we do not know how Stephey’s original request was conveyed to Jillian Michael’s directly. Jillian Michael’s response could be the result of mis-communication between Jillian Michael and her customer service. Actually, either way it was rude the way she gave Stephey credit.

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    • Hanssie

      I agree. I mean, there is a saying that there are three sides to every story…though I feel that Jillian could’ve used a bit more tact and class with her post.

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    • Eric Mazzone

      Actually if Stephey still has the emails she had with the CSR, and it can be demonstrated that she did not demand an apology, she can sue JM for libel because JM did willfully claim as a fact that Stephey did such and such when she did not, and that the intent was to discredit Stephey and possible cause financial harm, based on the tone of JM’s post she did it with malice. All that means big bucks in a libel suit, not to mention forcing JM to come to Stephey’s area to deal with it.

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    • Chuck Eggen


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