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Sorry for the less colorful blog this year — and a word to the wise to schools

January 29, 2020

A classroom at Shu Ren International School in Berkeley, California. Photo by Elizabeth Weise

Hi All,

As someone who makes her living writing for a newspaper, I am a firm and huge believer in intellectual property and copyright. If you write a piece, or take a photo or draw a picture or create music, it belongs to you and not the world. If I didn’t get paid for the words I write, I wouldn’t have a job.

Unfortunately, in the digital age it’s sometimes a little hard to know if an image has been paid for or is in the common domain.

I found out this week just how expensive getting that wrong can be when I got a letter in the mail from Permission Machine, a company that photographers use to find their copyrighted work online that’s being used without permission.

To my great sadness, a story I’d posted in 2015 about a website contained an image that belonged to a commercial photographer in Los Angeles, an image which the site — and by extension, I — did not have permission to use.

The bill for that one image, five years ago, wiped out every cent of money I’ve ever made from this blog and a quite a bit more besides. An expensive lesson to learn.

So I’ve deleted all the photos from this blog with the exception of a few at the very beginning which I myself took.

My guess is that 99.99% of the photos I’ve used over the past ten years (the blog launched in 2010) are totally fine. I took many myself and the rest were either sent to me by parents with explicit permission to use them, or from newspapers with a link to the full story, so the newspaper got the click (and the ad sales) from the story.

However, I didn’t have the time or the energy to go through a decade’s worth of photos to delete any that might be questionable so I took the somewhat drastic step of deleting all of them just to be sure. I don’t want to be writing any more checks to law firms.

Why this matters to you

I don’t write this just to complain, though I did want to explain why all the pretty pictures have disappeared, and why there might not be as many moving forward.

But it’s also a lesson I hope others can learn from. If you’re a school or a parent group, make sure that you’ve got permission to use the photos you use, especially stock photos or photos you might have found online. For example, I see lots of schools and groups and flyers that use the same stock photos of a group of multi-racial kids in a classroom (there don’t seem to be that many with a lot of Asian kids so they tend to get used over and over.)

You should know that if you haven’t paid for the right to use that photo, you might get hit with the kind of bill I did. Even if it’s just on a brochure or a flyer that you think “no one but parents at our school will ever see.” If it gets posted on your website, it can be easily found by copyright-searching software.

So take your own photos, don’t use stock photos from the web unless you’ve paid for them and stay safe out there!

Take it from me, your friendly neighborhood Mandarin immersion blogger, now sadder but wiser.


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