Protecting copyrights in today's wild Internet era is getting tougher and tougher. But for photographer Scott D. Smith, it's a matter of survival -- which is why he's fought for months to get country radio station 92.5 The Wolf to pay for allegedly stealing more than twenty photos from a Jason Aldean concert and using them for a week.
Unfortunately for him, the CEO of the station's parent company says it's not going to happen.
Smith is a nationally known photog who's shot for Rolling Stone, Guitar Player and many other prominent publications. He's also familiar to regular attendees of country concerts and events in the Denver area by virtue of an arrangement with 98.5 KYGO, the longtime ratings leader among country outlets in the area.
"I've been shooting for them for six years," he says. "They get to put up a few of the images on their website and Facebook page, and I get the copyright, and all the images are mine."
That was the case for photos Smith took at Aldean's October 21 gig at the Pepsi Center, which also featured Chris Young and Thompson Square. But a day or so after the shots appeared on the KYGO's sites, he received a call from a KYGO staffer who'd seen the same images on the Wolf's main website and Facebook page. Given that Smith hadn't posted the images with his agency yet, he could only come to one conclusion. "They'd stolen them," he says.
Shortly thereafter, Smith phoned the Wolf and asked to speak with the station's manager, Brenda Egger. At this writing, she has not responded to an interview request fromWestword
, and Smith says she didn't get back to him, either. However, he kept trying, and after about a week, he finally reached her.
"She claimed she knew nothing about it," he recalls. "She said she was really sorry, and they shouldn't have done that. Then she put me on hold, and when she came back, she said that yes, they were up there, and she'd have them taken down. And then she asked, 'What can we do to make it better?'"
Egger's suggestion was an offer of advertising time, Smith maintains. That wouldn't work, though, since he had a longstanding deal with KYGO. "It would have been a conflict of interest," he says. Besides, he makes his living from his photographer, typically selling images for between $200 and $1,000 apiece.
After hearing that price range, Smith says Egger told him she would have to get in touch with the corporate office -- Wilks Broadcasting Group, a Georgia-based firm that owns Denver's The Mix and KOOL-105 in addition to the Wolf. But in the coming days and weeks, he heard from neither Egger nor a Wilks representative. So he started leaving messages at Wilks' offices -- "and they were completely ignored," he says.
He didn't give up, though, and on one occasion, he says he began randomly hitting buttons until he was connected to an actual human being. The woman who answered was very nice, he remembers, and said she had access to the company's chief financial officer; Smith never got his name, but the firm's website lists him as Stephen Bradshaw. She said she'd check with the CFO and someone would get back to him.
When that didn't happen, either, Smith began phoning again -- and last week, he says he finally reached the woman with whom he'd spoken previously. "She said they had no intention of doing anything," he notes, "so I should go ahead and do whatever I wanted to do."
That's pretty much the same message passed along by Jeff Wilks, chief executive officer and namesake of Wilks Broadcasting. He disputes Smith's assertion that Egger floated advertising trade as possible compensation: "We never offered him that," he says. Moreover, he goes on, "There was no copyright on the photos. We found the photos, then we were notified about the photos, and the photos were taken down immediately."
Does that mean Wilks believes Wolf personnel acted in good faith and are under no further obligation to Smith? "Absolutely," he replies.
Wilks's words leave Smith slack-jawed -- particularly the claim that there was no copyright information on the photos. He says all of the copyright meta-data was embedded through Photoshop. In addition, whenever a user either clicks on any of the photos he provides to KYGO, or even places a cursor over the image, the copyright information pops up automatically, as seen in the following screen capture:
This information was shared with Egger during their phone conversation, Smith allows -- something that, in his mind, further undermines Wilks's insistence that the photos were free of copyright data.
What options are left to Smith? He can file a lawsuit against the company -- and indeed, he sent Egger an intent-to-sue letter earlier at the suggestion of a copyright attorney with whom he spoke. Still, the lawyer didn't make following through on this warning seem like much fun. "He told me it would be a tough fight and I'd probably win, but they'd drag it out forever," potentially costing him more in time than he might make from any settlement. But in the meantime, he's speaking out.
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"It's theft and they don't care," he says. "I'm not a rich person. I work hard for a living -- and I'm tired of being stepped on."
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