University of North Carolina steals photographer’s work, claims it could not have known photo was not free to use

UPDATE (5 Nov. 2014): The University and Justin Cook have reached a settlement. Read this post for more info.

Original post: This is a case that defies belief. The University of North Carolina used a photo by photographer Justin Cook on a departmental Facebook page without permission. When Cook, who attended UNC and is based in Durham, North Carolina, contacted the university about the unauthorized usage, university lawyers wrote back saying that they removed the image, do not acknowledge that it was an infringing usage, and could not have known that the image was copyrighted and not intended for redistribution. The image was taken from Cook’s wife’s wedding photography portfolio site.

Cook has written back and forth with the University and its representatives, and NPPA General Counsel Mickey Osterreicher stepped in with a letter to UNC explaining just why their response is wrongheaded, abusive of copyright, and generally unbelievable. UNC refuses to budge on the issue, essentially saying that because Cook put the image online, he was essentially allowing free usage of the image by anyone. There’s a detailed look at the whole saga on the Crusade For Arts website.

“I felt like their counsel’s comments were a backhanded way of saying to me: ‘you shouldn’t have put your work on the internet if you didn’t want it used.'” Justin Cook

In my dealings with copyright infringement, I’ve generally followed this advice. A cordial but direct approach to the right people at the offending organization usually results in an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, removal of the infringing usage, and payment. But Cook wasn’t as lucky in this case. It seems like the only option now is to pursue legal action, and that’s a costly endeavor.

It’s sad to see a University treat a photographer–and a graduate of that University!–with so little respect and disregard for copyright. UNC has a host of issues at the moment, though, so my guess is that this copyright case is low on their priority list. But, the institution recently paid $782,000 to hire a PR firm to handle its response to scandals plaguing the university, so you’d think they could afford a few thousand dollars to settle the unauthorized image usage.

11 Responses to “University of North Carolina steals photographer’s work, claims it could not have known photo was not free to use”

  1. Simon Griffiths

    Two years UNC stole a photograph of mine of Dean Smith originally taken in 1997. It was completely unrelated to the University. I didn’t realize they had a copy until it was used for the Heritage Calendar put out by ATT, but supported by UNC, N&O, UNC school of Journalism, etc. UNC provided the photo to ATT from their sports information archives. After I notified ATT the photograph was acquired without my permission, their lawyers became belligerent until I told them it was registered with the copyright office. They then claimed that UNC will have to pay any bill that I provide. UNC then sent their lawyers after me until they realized they didn’t have a case, so they had someone call me that “knew me from way back”. They settled as quickly as possible, and I settled for less than I should have, but I got paid quickly. This was 2 years ago. I’m not surprised that it has happened again. Universities love to prevent others from using their copyrighted materials, but they sure love to abuse the rights of others. With regards to the above misuse…they claimed that the photographed looked like the work of a departmental photographer. When I did a search online, there were over 80 different references to the image by blogs, etc. It was one of the first images to pop up when you typed in Dean Smith. If he is inclined and can stomach it, go after them for all he can. If I had to do it over, I would now as well, but at the time I tried not to burn a bridge. Instead I should have blown it up.

  2. Matthew Ashton

    Why does a photograph have to have a notice? What a ridiculous reply. Are people THAT stupid that they require notices like McDonalds do in warning customers that hot coffee is in fact hot? I am not religious but one of the ten commandments is do not steal. A photograph, a worded passage, a sculpture, a painting etc all belongs to the author of the work. People should understand that when using the internet they are bound under the same law as in normal life – ie they are subject to the same publishing laws as an editor of a national newspaper. I sincerely wish you all the luck from the UK and hope you get a satisfactory outcome. Here is a great couple of articles : and

  3. Matt Gladdek

    Having attended UNC, I was taught in class what photos I could and couldn’t use in powerpoint presentations because of copyright. I also know the university is well instructed by counsel on what instructors can and can’t photocopy and distribute.

  4. erin

    those photos include pat davison, a member of UNC’s faculty in the school of journalism. perhaps he could help? he’s a nice guy and a photographer.

  5. Dan Robrish

    Do copyright lawyers take cases on contingency like personal injury lawyers do? If not, maybe some ought to. It seems there are a lot of cases like this where the plaintiff would obviously win but might not pursue a lawsuit because of the expense.

    • Inez Tapia

      yes they do! My husband is a photographer and he has a very good copyright attorney that can work on contingency

  6. M.H.

    Here are my thoughts on this …

    Yes, a wedding picture should be understood by an established media organization that it’s likely under copyright, and before just using it, should have checked to make sure that it was available for use.

    But the photographer is wrong in demanding payment. Unless the photographer can present something actionable, the first step in mitigating a copyright infringement issue is to C&D the alleged infringer. That sounds like that took place here, and the infringer removed the image immediately. The C&D can also state that the paper is on notice that if they use any future photos from the person or entity who owns the photo in an unauthorized way, it will cost them $XX.

    Now whether that would be enforceable in a court or not is not something I know. But I can say that it’s far more enforceable than sending a bill without the agreement and demanding payment. There was no contract between the two parties establishing payment, and unless there was some actual pre-meditated theft, there is not much that can be done here.

    If you feel there are damages to you, like you actually did lose profits from this somehow, then make that case to the infringer, and say that you would like to be compensated. Or even go as far as say, “Well, you pay $XX for pictures in your publications, and we wish to receive that amount for using this photo.” That is a good way to settle this issue and be gone with it, and not send out some insane demand letter for some insane amount of money.

    If you can’t come to terms with that, then sue them. Let a judge decide the real value.

    I am against publications just taking pictures that belong to others. But I’m also against this belief that photographers can send a bill out of the blue, when standard ways of mitigating copyright disputes. Sending a bill? Not one of them.

    • Tom


      There is no contract between me and the candy store, but if I take a piece of bubble-gum and refuse to pay my nickel or dime ( used to be a penny ), I am guilty of theft.

      If UNC uses a photo without the owner’s permission, it is theft, unless the photograph has been explicitly made available for free use. The key work is ‘explicitly’.

    • Justin Cook

      Hi MH,

      I am not sure I sent out an insane demand letter. Please read the original blog post here:

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