Last week I received an email that began: “I am writing to inform you that you are using copyrighted material on your website which appears to be taken directly from the New York Times website.” A shudder went through me. What had I done? I was in the dark about my infringement but my whole body went on fear alert. If the Times was pursuing me, I must have done something truly reprehensible. (The same Times that had had fired Jill Abramson for having asked for pay equal to that of men. She was difficult, it seems, didn’t play well with others.) Suddenly, I was nine years old, or even nineteen, being condemned by my father the lawyer: “Jesus Christ, how stupid could you be?” (You don’t want to know.)
“The New York Times policy,” the sender went on, “as well as the federal copyright laws say you are not allowed to steal intellectual property.” I wracked my brains to figure out what I possibly could have stolen.
It took several emails to determine that the person writing to me was not an “agent” of the Times, but a photographer who free-lanced for the newspaper. He claimed that in a blog post from months ago, I had “stolen” a photograph the paper had published to illustrate an article. Then, having prosecuted me with his evidence (a screen shot), he went on to demand his particular pound of flesh: a dollar amount in exchange for which he would issue a “retro license that would free [me] from legal action.” Legal action!
I said I would remove the offending photograph. But that was not enough. I had to pay.
Reader, what would you have done? My husband and my former publicist both recommended that I apologize and then proceed to ignore him. But I knew from lifelong experience with with male anger that I could not bear to receive more emails threatening future lawsuits. Right or wrong, humiliated and fearful, I caved.
In the end, I sent the man the sum (not inconsiderable) he said he would have charged had I asked permission in the first place. I wrote the check not so much because he had the law on his side, but because I felt threatened to the core and fearful that he would track me relentlessly (thanks to GPS software).
There’s a nice, almost amusing twist, though: after all that, the photographer said that removing the image made the situation even worse! So now that I paid for it, I should put it back up as a credit. As if anyone was paging back through my posts!
Looking back, what continues to bother me is not the issue of image copyright per se. I can imagine defending the principle in other circumstances. What bothers me is that rather than letting me know in a polite manner that I had failed to ask permission to publish his photograph in my diary, and accepting my apology for having done so in error, the photographer felt the right to make me pay for my oversight, not just in money, but in condescending hyperbole.
Above all, what deeply disturbs me now is not so much the money, as the painful knowledge that I accepted my punishment as if I deserved it–and paid for it.