Trampling Amateur Photographer’s Rights

Corporate America is littered these days with misguided policies drafted by lawyers to protect companies from liability, but without a moment’s pause to what they convey. A good example is this recent bit from an interaction between an amateur photographer and Walgreens.

I come to pick up my prints. I uploaded them via your website.

I’m sorry sir I cannot sell you these prints.

Excuse me? How come?

It’s our policy not to infringe on copyright of professional work. You need to bring a release from the photographer.

But I AM the photographer. You see this is my family.

If you are the photographer, then how can you be in a picture?

I set up the shot, gave my camera to a friend and he clicked it. But since the configuration, tool and subject are mine copyright is mine.

Sorry sir, you need to provide proof that you are the owner of the copyright.

How can I go about doing that?

Well you bring the media you used to save the picture or you bring proof by bringing the sequence of pictures or a signed release.

Now, this is a real story that happened to my husband, right before Father’s day. I even went to the store myself with my four kids to explain the situation to the managerial staff, to no avail. I saw they had my prints, my beautiful prints and still it was a Father’s day without our anticipated wallet pictures. I mention this incident as an example of ill-advised policies. In this case rather than protect copyright it infringes on a consumer’s rights and invites employees to treat consumers as thieves or scammers.

The policy is likely a throwback to a time when rolls of film were the medium of the day and photograph retouching and fancy lenses were the exclusive realm of "professional photographers." With the advent of digital photography and readily available art programs, touching up photographs has become a hobby of many. Semi-professional cameras can now be bought for $800, the price of one computer or two palm devices. Now that we rarely use film and all images are digital, we can snap hundreds and select the 3 that are excellent, whether by chance or design. In our case proving ownership meant either going home and printing other pictures – the irony being we used Walgreens online to upload the pics and get them printed so as to NOT to use our printer. If we had not had a printer I guess we could have brought the computer hard drive as the pictures were never on a single camera memory disk but in our files at home. The pictures were the best in our past six month.  I concurred with the Walgreens staff and that is why we wanted them printed.

Adding to the confusion and irritation, the policy is not posted online nor on the store. Consumers are led to believe the service is being provided and then when we were ready to pay "$1.99" the staff let us know they thought we were stealing images from some professional.

I am sure many lawsuits and underhanded situations have led stores to no longer uphold "consumer is always right", but "the consumer has to prove he or she is innocent" is quite upsetting. The courts in Puerto Rico spoke on this topic. In 2006, clients of Costco participated in a lawsuit against the store for their practice of requiring their clients proof of purchase as they stepped outside the store. The local courts found in favor of the consumer stating that the stores could not force clients to prove their innocence. If the burden of proof should be anywhere it should be with the store itself. If theft is a problem approach those whom you suspect or have witnessed in foul play, but don’t treat us all as thieves and scam artists.

But the practice of requesting proof of purchase at the exit continues, I just know I have the right to abstain. To the consumers that stand in long lines waiting to prove that they bought their goods and give me dirty looks, I say, defend your rights or be aware of what is the marketplace you are agreeing to sponsor and build.

There are great opportunities here for better policies and greater respect and better treatment of clients in exchange for consumer loyalty. But it is up to the consumers to let the businesses know when policies are unacceptable and for the business to review its policies and invest in improving their client relationship. I for one will continue to work to expose what is wrong and offer a solution.