A Rapper Stole a Photo, and It’s More Complicated Than That

A Rapper Stole a Photo, and It’s More Complicated Than That

Detroit-born rapper Danny Brown recently caused a ruckus when he posted an image taken in Melbourne by Michelle Grace Hunder to Instagram without permission. The photo had been taken at a music festival for Howl & Echoes, a Sydney-based online music site.

H&L Editor-in-chief Lauren Ziegler sent Brown a DM on Twitter to ask him to add a photo credit. Brown’s response was less than cheery, and festival promoter Nic Kelly went public with the exchange.


Brown then tweeted:

To which Kelly responded:

According to Ziegler, Howl & Echoes “has become increasingly vigilant about artists posting our photos without credit” following image theft by rapper A$AP Rocky earlier in the year. In a different piece, Ziegler explains, “Howl & Echoes is a small website. We earn practically nothing, we can’t pay our writers, photographers or ourselves.”

Ironically, Kelly’s own music promotion site, Project U, states:

  • ALL photo galleries on the site are owned by Project U Media Australia and the respective photographers who are listed beside each gallery.
  • Social photos can be used without credit, although one would be nice.

Putting aside Brown’s clownish immaturity, the episode illustrates a number of relevant issues. Let me dissect:

The Sharing Generation is getting its comeuppance

A generation of consumers – primarily Millenials – grew up in an era where so much incredible content was freely available, whether legal or not. Now that they have entered the workforce, they are bearing witness to the unsustainability of this economic model as it affects their own lives. Ziegler asks for photo credit because she can’t “pay our writers, photographers or ourselves,” but she shouldn’t be surprised that Brown sees no value in the stolen photo when her own staff if ostensibly working for free.

Similarly, it’s fantastic that Kelly is standing up for Howl & Echoes, but his own site’s photo policy is contributing to the problem of free.

Photo credits, “eyeballs,” and clickbait don’t pay the rent.

We only understand copyright in the context of our own industry

The average person doesn’t understand the process and investment of time and money in taking a really great photo, thus the work of the professional photographer is often trivialized. The issue is exacerbated with misinformation.

This infuriating ignorance often leads to a lot of moral grandstanding by photographers, but how many of them stole a Photoshop serial number back in the day? How many have illegally downloaded music and movies and justified the behavior? Photographers value photography because their livelihood depends on it.

Should we be surprised that Brown doesn’t consider posting the photo as theft? Should we be surprised that Kelly makes a confusing statement that photo galleries are owned by Project U and the respective photographers, while then extending an unlimited use license for social media (disclaimer: I know nothing about Australian copyright laws)? Neither’s livelihood depends on photography.

Individuals generally have no skin in the game, therefore copyright infringement is easily justifiable

Brown’s 2012 hit Grown Up samples the Gorillaz’s Tomorrow Comes Today.

You can be sure that Brown’s label, Fool’s Gold, paid a royalty for the sample because the threat of lawsuit is real. You can probably surmise that Brown would have stolen the sample if he self-published. This isn’t a coded racial statement. This is a fact of how music appropriation occurs, particularly in rap and EDM, on sites on Soundcloud on a daily basis. If you’re an indie artist with no net worth dumping out a few tracks with negligible views, there’s no incentive for anyone to be “compliant” with licensing. Plus, licensing can be arduous.

Licensing is a pain and corporations need to build easy mechanisms

At the beginning of this year, I produced a series of live music videos for my alma mater. Many of the songs were “covers,” and therefore the school sought to legally license them. Although automated mechanisms exist to create an audio recording of another artist’s song (a “mechanical license”) through sites like Harry Fox, there is no analogous mechanism for adding a visual video component (a “synchronization license”). To obtain a synch license, you need to directly contact the music publisher. Want a synch license for a Bob Dylan song? Write a physical letter because his publishing company has no website, e-mail or telephone. I’m trying to do things legally, and you want to make it as difficult as possible to do the right thing?

Under threat of legal proceedings, sites like YouTube and Soundcloud have added mechanism to detect copyrighted material, and licensing/monetization tools. That’s why, unbeknownst to many content creators, all those cover songs you see on YouTube are actually legal. Big publishers like Sony have licenses in place with YouTube so that a high school kid can upload a cover of Beyoncé.

As a function of scale, there are no clearinghouses or registries for photos. There are no mechanisms in Instagram or Twitter (that I know of) that detect copyrighted photos and pay the content creator (there is, however, an agreement between Pinterest and Getty Images).

Active social media users can post dozens of times per day. It’s not legally nor morally right for Danny Brown to steal a photo, but given the ephemeral nature of social media, should we be surprised at his reaction? I agree that adding a photo credit is trivial and he should have done it, but it’s almost easier to delete the photo.

Instagram might never build a monetization mechanism, but it could pretty easily build an (imperfect) automated crediting system for regrams at the very least.


Music photography (particularly editorial) is notorious for having “no budget.” Ethically, Brown should have added the photo credit, but economically, the credit has zero value. It’s unlikely that any of Brown’s 259,000 followers would have hired Hunder (wrong addressable market). Hunder should have asked for compensation for use of the photo from Brown’s management, Brown’s management should have a budget for promotion ($50 buys a lot of goodwill nowadays), and Howl & Echoes should have compensated her fairly for her work (I’m assuming she worked for credential).

You can rightfully claim that Danny Brown was a jerk, but the economics of the situation are more nuanced.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 11 comments for this article
  1. Barton at 6:32 pm

    No doubt there is a widespread issue with the general public and perception of value when it comes to (not just photographic) creative work. After looking at HOLLY-MAY and Shwebes twitter profiles though I can’t say that I would give much weight to their opinions: it’s far too easy in our new e-social world for someone to have an opinion now that they can broadcast it so flippantly as though it means something. It’s best just ignored and not repeated.

    It’s interesting to consider how many followers these people have, and then consider if those followers are actually paying attention to any of their opinions? Do any of them care? It’s all got a half life of about one tenth of a second, roughly the same as the average attention span. I feel sorry for photographers that shoot in this field yet it is endemic that they shoot for free … give their work to websites/mags etc. for free. And what is the result? Everyone believes their work is worth nothing. It’s a tricky one, I don’t have an answer: I’ve shot for free too — never totally free because I always attempt to gain some kind of capital from the work — getting my work or name out there. So it’s a bit rough not to get a credit.

    I have to agree with Nic kelly F#$king numpty. I like his song though, nice to see that he’s the greatest now’s he’s grown up too.

  2. Lawrence at 7:44 pm

    The whole cussing attitude shown in these exchanges would depress me except that rap has been an “in your face” since day one. The shock values are diminished so “go eff yourself’ or worse is the new norm.

    Can you imagine a similar exchange between, say, a Lang Lang or Andre Previn, or Leonard Bernstein and a provider in a similar situation?

    Just sayin!

  3. Thomas Pickard at 6:11 am

    Nuanced is the word, for sure. Photographers who think photo credits lead to paid work are kidding themselves. And photographers who work for free in the hope of paid work are failing to understand the message they are sending to the market place – you don’t value your work, if you are giving it away for free!

    And there are loads of businesses who love a service for free. I mean, who wouldn’t?

    The horse has bolted, but the crying shame about how the Internet became a place of shared and/or stolen content, is the fact that so few content creators are paid for their efforts. If the sharing of content had been set up so that each time content was shared, a tiny royalty was paid to the original creator, then the Internet would be such a better place for content creators and content sharers, alike.

    Thinking about this, I’d like to know Allen – did you (or Photoshelter), pay Chris a license fee to use his photo in the header of this post?

    • Chris Owyoung at 10:41 am

      Hey Thomas,

      Chris here. I made an exception and gave Allen permission to use the image without a licensing fee. He and I have been friends for years and I was happy to give him use of the image for this op-ed. Normally I ask for a small fee and a link back to my website or, in the case of Instagram, my profile.

    • Mark Dunton at 8:29 am

      Mr. Pickard………so far this year, PHOTO CREDITS, as you so flippantly dismiss has generated about $2500 in revenue alone for me……..maybe the quality of your work needs to improve, then you too might be able to generate a bit of business from PHOTO CREDITS……..

      • Thomas Pickard at 6:55 pm

        Mark – good to hear you have had success with photo credits. Good on you.

        As for me, it simply isn’t a business model I subscribe to.

        As for the quality of my work, I’m pretty happy with it, which is why I charge for it and don’t give it away for free.

  4. Trevor at 3:54 pm

    Shwebes said:
    “go make a song and tell me it’s as easy as pointing a camera.”

    Making a song is exactly as easy, or as hard, as making a photograph. Some songs are terrible, some are great, not unlike photographs.

    A song is a photograph for one’s ears and a photograph is a song for one’s eyes.

    There is as much more involved in making a photograph than “pointing a camera” as there is more in creating a song than holding a microphone.

  5. Todd Spoth at 5:27 pm

    Allen & Photoshelter fam: If y’all ever need any further examples of rappers appropriating photos without proper usage or credit please send me an email as I sadly have lots of stories and experiences with this. Most of the artists I work with put the proper Respek on my name though.

  6. Luke at 9:36 am

    Just a note a Aussie copyright laws. As far as I know, (I should possibly brush up on this) once an image is taken it belongs to the photographer, no registration is required. Unless there has been a contract signed beforehand stating that another party owns outright, or dual rights. Most of my career has been work long for papers where they own the copyright with an exception of portfolio use and making a book.

  7. Cooper Neill at 5:28 pm

    The sad thing is this isn’t just rappers – it’s blogs, brands, athletes and millions of other folks who think it’s ok to take other folks work and post it online.

  8. Tony Hopkin at 3:44 am

    I can sympathise with the photographer as I have been caught out by the theft of an image I took. At the time I was unaware of copyright etc. Yes, I know, I should have known better. However this image was one I shared with my ‘friends’ via my Facebook page. Some time later I was browsing through various websites dealing with digital photo manipulation and surprise, surprise staring me in the face was my photo. It was being used by a very large multi-national company to promote one of their programs. I then began to look into the legality of their action. From what I found online it appeared that it was no good shutting this legal door after the horse had bolted. Again unfortunately by the time I was able to know my legal rights the photo in question had been removed from their site.

    I now embed all copyright data into the meta-data in each photo as well as putting in plain sight on the image my copyright notice. In a perverse way it was nice to know that my work was considered worthy of being stolen, but it would have been even better for royalties to have been put into my bank account and credit given. My advice to folk living outside of the United Kingdom is; be “belt and braces” by embedding copyright into the meta data, add a visible copyright notice on your images and last but certainly not least subscribe to the US data protection service by registering your images with them. In the UK our copyright is easier to enforce legally – but the US side of the ‘pond’ is where quite a few of the thieves reside.

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