During the last three weeks, I have spearheaded an ongoing anti-fraud campaign over at Shutterstock’s contributor forum, which has had some success, but still huge challenges lay ahead.
In this update, I’ll go through what’s gone right, what’s gone wrong and how I’ve identified some of the accounts so you can keep an eye out in case one of your images end up in the wrong hands. I’ll also discuss how “free sites” are contributing to a downfall in the industry.
For the first blog post on this crucial topic, see here.
Tip of the iceberg
According to Shutterstock’s latest Press Release, they boast 550,000 contributors and 225 million images. These are the KPIs that shareholders/stakeholders/investors analyse when making a decision on whether to invest on Shutterstock.
However, back on Planet Earth, and upon closer inspection, just how many of those accounts are fraudulent and just how many of those images are stolen/duplicates or close adaptations? I suspect a lot.
250+ Suspicious accounts flagged
So far in the last three weeks, myself and a group of other hard-working and concerned contributors have identified 250+ suspicious accounts, mainly based in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand, Russia and Ukraine.
The “West” hasn’t been sparred with some suspicious accounts based in Italy, UK and US, Canada, Brazil also being flagged but extremely few relative to the former.
Mistakes do and will happen
There have been some mistakes on my part but fortunately they were quickly remedied. As you can appreciate, when there’s one image in 4+ different ports, it can be confusing to identify the copyright owner and tempting to flag all 4 accounts, including the potential copyright owner. I’ve set up some loose filters which I’ll discuss shortly.
However, caution is in order and further due diligence is needed. The last thing I want is to have an innocent account shut down (although I don’t have illusions of grandeur). Ultimately, the legal burden lies on SS Compliance to investigate flagged accounts, after all they have the tools and resources.
Shutterstock is taking action!
I’ve been quite critical lately of the “hand that feeds me”, but I must give them some credit as in the past week alone Jan 20-27, they’ve systematically gone down my list of which I’ve had considerable help and “wacked” 130 of the 250 “moles”. Great job, Shutterstock!
Large accounts shut = biggest reward
I call it a “wack a mole” job since it’s so easy for these guys to disappear and re-appear with different accounts, but the real success has come from closing down accounts with over 500 images.
The following are currently active suspicious accounts with over 500 images (I’ve strategically placed within a “priority list” at the SS contributor forum): MARCH UPDATE: SS HAS SHUT DOWN THIS THREAD AND DELETED ALL CONTENT.
https://www.shutterstock.com/g/kostin77 (355301546 duplicated in another port as 1270126756)
https://www.shutterstock.com/g/CharoensilpPhotoData?page=10&section=1&sort=popular&search_source=base_gallery&language=en (not theft but criminal amounts of spam and blur + oof)
Update Feb 2:
Total moles identified to date: 468
Total moles wacked: 236
Summary for week ending Feb 3:
Moles wacked (by SS) from Jan 27 – Feb 2: 116
Moles pending: 105
Wack a Mole Bible by the Brutally Honest Guy
With more experience, I’ve developed an efficient strategy to flag suspicious accounts using the following filters:
1. New accounts < 6 months with only a few dozen images (thieves won’t invest a huge amount of time on this if they don’t see returns)
2. Larger ports = more likely to be legitimate, although from the list above it’s not fool-proof
3. IPs based in high-risk countries: India (!), Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Russia, China, Thailand, North African countries
4. Spelling mistakes in captions as well as “baby language” to describe the scene
5. Captions less than 5 words (but not necessarily), also if the fking idiot has a pic of the skyline of Manhattan and captions it “some city buildings”
6. Less than 10 keywords + spelling mistakes
7. One image for each iconic place. Nobody goes to pyramids or great wall of china, Mt. Everest and only captures one image (?!)
8. What shows up as similar images…if it’s the same at another port, then obviously a huge red flag. This is the easiest one to flag. *
9. More humorous one but has happened: These thieves actually start up threads on the SS forum asking for advice. Maybe on MSG forum too, who knows.
10. Also, clearly commercial shoots with identifiable models being submitted as editorials. Also, due to ignorance, some moles will place all their images that can and should be commercial as editorial using a caption.
If you’re got some mole wacking experience, please feel free to suggest some other filters.
Unsplash, Pixabay, Pexels = scum
As far as I’m concerned, these “free sites” are scum for many reasons I won’t get into here. More relevant to this discussion, many of the flagged accounts include images from these above-mentioned free sites. In other words, free images were downloaded and re-sold for profit under their own accounts.
I’ve been in contact with Unsplash via Twitter who have provided me with the usual PR bullshit spin. The Brutally Honest blog is a no-bullshit zone!
I wrote at length why I think these sites are scum and contributing to making this industry increasingly unsustainable for the average contributor:
“At the moment, I look at Unsplash and others negatively since they appear to “exploit” naive contributors’ good intentions that wish to promote their work. Outside their own promotional blogs, I’ve yet to see any compelling evidence that contributors had a substantial increase in business after giving away their images for free. Just because a big brand uses one of your images and perhaps credits you (they often don’t as it’s not an obligation under the license agreement), does it really make a difference? Probably not. For example, someone who uses an iPhone to shoot an image that is used by Apple for free…I mean, a top 3 richest company in the world just got an image for free when they would have otherwise licensed it from someone else for real world money. How can someone honestly think this is positive unless they’re like 13 years old and want to brag to their high school friends and impress the girls?
This is much worse than a restaurant in the US paying a waitress below minimum wage and expecting customers to cover her wage with tips (but this is much more common). We’re heading towards an era of DIGITAL SLAVERY with WILLING slaves.
Then there are other issues related to unreleased work and the agencies passing on the risk to the naive photographer. In other words, a brand/person sues Unsplash and Unsplash sues the contributor. The whole thing is a ticking legal time-bomb. 1 time in 5,000 nothing will happen but why take an unnecessary risk for questionable gain? “
This is a huge task and I would like to thank others that are helping me flag these accounts. As SS have 550,000 accounts, my goal is to reach 5,500 suspicious accounts to make a case that 1% of accounts on SS are likely fraudulent. This is a reasonable and realistic goal of which I’ve only achieved 5% (250).
This problem is of course not exclusive to SS and I trust that decision-makers at other microstock agencies will read this and take action within their own camps. Get in touch and I may be able to offer some more insights on how to combat this issue.
I’ll be back with an update soon, likely after 1,000 accounts flagged and some 500 officially closed.
To finish off I’ll leave you with the pic of a mute horse, brought to you by “artist”, Rockkss, based in Canada – https://www.shutterstock.com/g/Rockkss?sort=newest.
Would appreciate if you could help me out!
Above I’ve given a lot of time and effort to track down those moles and eliminate them. This also helps you!
To show your appreciation for this effort if you’re so inclined, please donate an amount you feel is reasonable.
I’ve also ran out of things to say so…until next time!
Thank you Steve Heap for mentioning me in your blog update for Jan 2019 at Backyardsilver.com!
Alex is the official Shutterstock wackamoler since late 2018. Others describes him as diligent, professional and thorough.
So far he has contributed to 120 fraudulent accounts being suspended with 1000s more to come! They are burning effigies of him in India…
You are the Man, there will come a day when we will all Know who Put a stop to theft or at the very least tried his Best. Im extremely proud of you!!!!!!!!!!
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Thanks Laurin! 🙂
It’s everybody’s responsibility to at least try to keep this industry somewhat fair and sustainable. Some things are worth fighting for! I’ve had help to put the list together so it hasn’t been all me.
Shutter have paid me out just over $10k over some years so I give a little love back…
I’m just starting to dabble in stock photography, and had no idea this was an issue. Thank you for all the information – and your work on the problem!
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Thanks! It’s a huge problem…I really think that 1% of accounts on SS are suspicious…
Congrats! This is really helping the contributor community and it’s hard work!
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I think you have good intentions, but I think you are overreaching. First of all, you affirm that these practices make the microstock business unsustainable. I agree that these fraudulent practices contribute to depreciate this sector, but they are not the main cause of its decline and of the constant reduction of profits and commissions for the contributor. From the objective point of view of the profession, the commissions are deporable and ruin the traditional business. The situation of the professionals is worse, not because a few of them steal images, but because the contributors have accepted shameful margins and the agencies have not implemented the adequate quality standards.
In the second place, it seems suspicious that someone dedicates hours and hours of their time to investigate the accounts and affairs of others. He is very praiseworthy and courageous. But today those things do not happen without an interest. Who has chosen you as an unbreakable champion and defender and as political police of the contributors? Who watches who is watching? Should not the agencies be investigating this in your place and that of your colleagues? I love transparency. And I do not like people who take justice into their own hands. I believe that it is the agencies that have to pursue these offenses. Their margins are increasing and they should invest part of their benefits on policies to protect the rights of the contributors, after all, it is their obligation. I do not agree that you owe them anything and that you have to do nothing altruistically for them. It does not sound good to me this song that you sing at this moment. I’m sure it’s not what you expect to hear.
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Hi and thanks for your very interesting comments! I’ll try to reply to each one individually:
“but they are not the main cause of its decline and of the constant reduction of profits and commissions for the contributor”
Agreed. Lots of many other factors at play, in my opinion it’s mainly down to pure market forces…if the supply is increasing at 50%/year and demand only growing at 5%/year then this normally leads to a fall in price. Also greed has been a factor as some agencies will take advantage and reduce the margins even more…the likes of Getty / iStock come to mind or Depositphotos licensing on-demand images for $1.
These thieves are more of a nuisance and leave a bad taste in the mouth of contributors, leading to a loss of morale.
“it seems suspicious that someone dedicates hours and hours of their time to investigate the accounts and affairs of others. He is very praiseworthy and courageous. But today those things do not happen without an interest”
Certainly it’s rare to see! In the spirit of transparency, I run a for-profit business and this episode is generating a healthy amount of traffic towards my blog. The fact that you clicked on a link and found my blog is not by accident. This has resulted in some book sales and professional inquiries. In addition, Shutterstock management have contacted me and this may open professional doors. I hope to do a vlog on YouTube soon about all this that should generate a nice amount of discussion.
I think you’re asking the wrong question. It’s not “why”, but “why not”? The number of contributors that have complained about this for months and done nothing is substantial. I just went one step further and actually did something and I can see that others are inspired and helping out in “wackamoling”. Sure it’s taken some hours but I’ve found a fast workflow that has reduced the time it’s taken to find those accounts…plus with the help of others.
“Who has chosen you as an unbreakable champion and defender and as political police of the contributors?”
“Should not the agencies be investigating this in your place and that of your colleagues?”
Apparently a technology company listed in the NYSE, worth billions, isn’t capable of hiring someone capable of writing a code that can detect that the same image is on 6 different portfolios, all based in India…
“I do not agree that you owe them anything and that you have to do nothing altruistically for them.”
You’re right, I don’t. They owe me/us. SS simply provided me with a service and took their pound of flesh of 60%+ from my royalties. What I am doing isn’t altruistic since I’m running a for-profit business. For every hour I put in into “wackamoling”, that’s one less hour that I devote to shooting, editing and paid writing. Unless I receive some sort of remuneration, I’ll have to slow down this activity to focus on the business. As mentioned in the blog post, I’ve set myself a goal of 5,500 flagged accounts, so still a lot of work to do but also need to look out for my own interests.
Perfect reply Alex, even more respect for you. Alfred
Great post! I’m a new contributor to Shuttestock and other sites. Haven’t sold anything yet, but fingers crossed. I didn’t realize this was an issue. I’m glad you’re working to remove these fraudulent accounts, so people work really hard on their photos. I look forward to reading more of your blog posts!
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Thanks, I do what I can but I’m just one person and there’s 550,000 total contributors. Who knows how many of those have stolen pics?
First of all, thank you for what you are doing, it is really great.
I also managed to close down some thief-accounts on shutterstock and adobestock. I also contacted many other artists and ask them to report their stolen content. Unfortunately in my experience these thieves had accounts on several sites, but usually with a different username on each site.
What I was curious about: what is your opinion on portfolios or “image series” like this one:
11 pages of the same vector (with the text changed). I don’t even know how those were accepted in the first place…
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I think spamming is disgusting, but not even close to as bad as thieving, of course. I’m thinking of adding a header in the thieves thread regarding serial spammers. Dunno if they would ever shut down these accounts but at least limit some of this annoying habit. WAKE UP SHUTTERSTOCK QC! Thanks for pointing this out.
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Hi Alex! Thank you very much for your article. I would like to know how you check what photos were stolen. Any suggestions would be helpful. Thank you very much
Easiest method is finding the same image on multiple ports, especially if they’re based in “high risk countries” such as India, Pakistan, Russia, etc
“Apparently a technology company listed in the NYSE, worth billions, isn’t capable of hiring someone capable of writing a code that can detect that the same image is on 6 different portfolios, all based in India…”
Off the shelf code exists. Apparently Shutterstock’s will to implement it does not.
Do a search for TinEye MatchEngine. Scroll down to the list of companies using it . Interesting.
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Just a question to you, Alex… how effective was your campaign? By taking into consideration of SS shut down your forum posts and have stopped anyone who voice out this issue, SS and other agencies just don’t care about this at all. It was just by luck that you made SS to shut down a hundred of contributors accounts, maybe, but on the other hand, it could be a few hundreds of new accounts were established by people who continue their dirty works, they can simple open new accounts without going through any identity verification, so this can’t be stopped I’m afraid…
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Good question. It was effective in that the issue was put out in the public sphere, giving them more pressure to act. Although not so much is going on in public anymore since they cowardly censor any bad press, I’m in talks with them behind the scene to try to set up a group to wack those moles and I’d get paid for my time and effort which is only fair enough since it’s an extremely time consuming task. Still waiting to hear back.
As for the actual wackamoling, close to 300 accounts were flagged and shut down and I would say that although this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the overall number of thieves, it’s still quite an achievement.
Last time I checked, I managed to quickly spot a few dozen accounts so it’s really sad that this issue isn’t being taken as seriously as it should. Exactly, thieves can just open up a new accounts.
To be continued…I’m not giving up on this campaign….
I was reading your article and started to search my photos on google.
I found my image being sold as poster and I don’t believe it is in their rights to do so, i verified on adobe if i sold the image with extended licence and I did not.
The link to my image is this -> https://stock.adobe.com/ro/stock-photo/id/113455795
Here is where they sell it as posters ->
Thank you for your time.
Europosters seems to be a partner of AS
Reblogged this on LiveLaughLove Blog and commented:
Informative and disheartening at the same time…I didn’t realize copyright infringement and theft were that commonplace. And photo sites prefer no watermark/copyright on both free and paid submissions because it “discourages” interested buyers (and “freeloaders”) from wanting to use your image. I have recently become more active with submitting my photo images to microstock sites, armed with an iPhone camera roll that is virtually bursting at the seams with a whopping 56,000+ images!! Yikes! The joys and tribulations of being an obsessed iphoneographer who is also a perfectionist (aka “serial editor”), as well as a discombobulated mess when it comes to making choices between multiple photo versions and similar edits.
A big “Thank You” to Alex of brutallyhonestmicrostock.com for sharing this enlightening post! 🙏👍
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I started this last year. I found my pictures stolen. I found a lot of fraudulent portfolios.
Unfortunately, SS doesn’t take a serious approach of the pandemic on their servers