The Case of the Too-Good Photograph

Callie turned two about a week ago and though I’ve been somewhat slack in keeping up with regular picture-taking of her with my good camera (I’m much better at capturing her with my phone, a device I’ve come to think of as my point-and-shoot), I did take the time before we took her to the zoo as part of her celebration day to snap a few shots of her in her very cute sailor outfit purchased by Nik specifically for the occasion. It came with a miniature version of the same dress, I suppose intended to be used on a doll, which we put on her favorite teddy bear.

As a side note, the teddy bear is named B.B., which stands for “Bear’s Bear.” We kind of cribbed a pet name for Calliope from my brother and sister-in-law who called my nephew “Joel Bear” when he was a baby; the context felt a little different when we began to use the term “Callie Bear” because it’s connotation seemed more synonymous with the sonically similar “Teddy Bear,” notably soft and innocent and sweet. “Joel Bear” was more boyish to my ears, highlighting his rolly-polly humor and conveying what I can best describe as a playful growl. At least that’s what they meant to me, although I did (and still do) feel a little twinge of guilt in using the moniker—not that even Scott and Sara’s usage was particularly novel—because I never wanted them to think we were copying intentionally, it was just one of those things that stuck, like when we were kids and we used to call the family dog (nee Sparky) “Stupid,” because it fit better than his actual name. Not that Joel and Callie are stupid! I’m digging a hole here. The point is, we’d often shorten “Callie Bear” to simply, “Bear.” Hence, “Bear’s Bear” or B.B. As with most very young sounding terms of endearment, I notice that Joel doesn’t get called “Joel Bear” all that often and even “Callie Bear” is starting to phase out of favor as she enters toddlerhood.

Pardon my digress. Anyway, of the lot of perhaps 15 photos I got before Callie lost interest, a couple were possibly usable but one was clearly the best of the bunch:

Happy Birthday!

Now, it’s not stellar. I forgot to comb her hair so I had to crop the picture closely and add a black halo to the image to hide the flyaway hairs, which also served to mask the fact that the top of the chair she’s sitting in was pretty obviously in need of a good dusting. But I fiddled with it a bit in iPhoto (man, I miss Photoshop!) and it came out pretty good. Mostly it works because Callie is incredibly photogenic, when she chooses to be, and she was downright cooperative that morning. I posted the picture on Flickr, linked to it on Facebook and we carried on with the rest of the day.

Nik, unsurprisingly, loved the picture. She decided to get some prints made of it to distribute to some friends and family commemorating Callie’s second anniversary. She used Snapfish, an online photo printing service, to order some prints for pickup at a local drugstore, hereafter referred to by the uncrackable codename of “Galwreens.” A day or two passed, and she was informed the prints were ready to be paid for and picked up. Bully so far.

It so happened that after a couple of conflicting doctors’ appointments yesterday which required me to come home from work a bit early, I had Callie with me while Nik was off taking a well-deserved break, getting pedicures with a friend and she had some errands that needed to be run: Pick up some prescriptions, grab a few items at the grocery store, and acquire the prints from Galwreens. Happy to help and spend time with Callie, I volunteered.

When we got to Galwreens though, the courtesy clerk (who was already frazzled from what I presume was a number of co-worker call-ins leaving the store understaffed plus an incredibly picky customer ahead of me in line who had her running laps to the store room looking for a very specific flavor of Starbucks brand iced coffee beverages) at first couldn’t locate the prints. I was about to leave, annoyed that I must have gotten the wrong branch or location or something, when she called me back. “Oh, here they are. I found them,” she said, a quizzical tone to her voice, pulling them from a side area closer to the register than the buckets of ready prints. She read a lengthy note attached to the envelope.

“Okay, great,” I said, pulling my wallet from my pocket.

“Do you have the release form, then?”

I paused. “The what?”

“The release form from the photographer. We can’t sell these to you without them.”

I laughed. “Dude, I’m the photographer.” She scowled.

“Okay, do you have the negatives?” she said.

More laughter from me: “No, these were taken on a digital camera.” I paused for a moment. “Does anyone actually bring in film negatives anymore?” I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when she ignored me.

“Okay, do you have the memory stick with the pictures on it?”

“Well, not on me,” I said.

She nodded with a particular smirk on her face that read, my but you’re a stupid one, aren’t you. What she said was, “Well if you go get that, I can sell these to you.”

“But it’s at home—and anyway, I don’t know that I kept the pictures on the card.”

She looked aghast. “You don’t have a backup stick!?”

My sarcasm gland was draining cynicine (that’s the serum that causes sarcastic people to descend into that fugue state where everything they say is tinged with contempt and derision; it’s the substance that is referred to when someone says a phrase was “dripping” with sarcasm) into my brain. “No, I have a 500 GB hard drive and a 2 GB memory card: My hard drive is my backup.” Mentally, I added, “You incompetent, judgmental grub.” After a second’s thought I added, “I can show you the picture on my computer.” My laptop was sitting in my bag out in the car. She shook her head.

“I’m sorry, you’ll have to take this up with my manager.”

“Okay fine.”

“He’ll be in tomorrow at eight.”

I sighed. “So he’s not here now.”

She shook her head again, firmly. “Let me give you his number.”

“Listen,” I began, “I’m the photographer here.”

She interrupted, “But it looks professional!”

Now, I could have been flattered. In retrospect, I kinda guess I am, but my annoyance was overpowering that. In the age of relatively cheap digital camera equipment, post-processing software that is affordable and often bundled with PC hardware, a wealth of information online about professional photography technique and no cost barrier to snapping away until you get the one good shot in dozens, how does one not come up with a picture that could perhaps be professional? Who gauges this anyway? Some random service clerk at a drugstore? Would they know professional photography from a set of photocopied buttcheeks? The clerk, who was also getting annoyed at this point, continued, “Look, we could get sued for thousands of dollars if we sold this to you and the copyright belonged to someone else. I could lose my job and frankly, I’m not doing that for you.” It was her turn to pause. “For the record, I believe you, but my hands are tied.”

I drew a deep breath and implored Callie to stop systematically dismantling a display shelf. She was remarkably patient and well-behaved throughout the entire exchange, which is more than I could say for myself.

“Okay,” I said, “Here’s the problem: I took this picture and you won’t sell the prints to me. But normally you wouldn’t be talking to me, you’d be talking to my wife. And she didn’t actually take the picture. So if she comes down here tomorrow morning and asks for our pictures from your manager, is there any way she’s going to be successful?”

The clerk looked me square in the face with cold eyes. “You’d have to discuss that with my manager.”

I moistened my lips and stopped Callie from opening several expensive “value” packs of AA batteries. “Alright, I guess I’ll leave without my own pictures then.” Atta boy! That showed her!

“Wait,” she said without a hint of enthusiasm. “Don’t you want the phone number?”

“Sure,” I said. For all the good I expected of it. She scrawled a number and name on the back of a discarded receipt and handed it to me. “He’ll be in at eight.”

I thanked her without sincerity and collected Callie before she could tip over an out of order self-serve photo printing kiosk. As I began to walk away I paused, remembering something. I made a few gestures on my phone, pulled up a website and called her back before she disappeared into the back room. “Look,” I said feeling this was my last chance, “this is my Flickr account. See? This is the same picture, and this is my account,” I clicked a link to show my profile page, featuring a picture of myself from a few years ago. Close enough, I hoped. She nodded but tempered it with a shrug.

“I’m sorry. Like I said, I believe you, but I just can’t help you.”

“Yeah,” I said pointedly.

Afterward I was pretty heated about the whole thing. I posted a short version of the story on Twitter and several people responded, appalled. A couple of people complimented the photo. Dr. Mac said he could understand how it would look like a studio shot requiring a release. Later, when I recounted the tale to Nik I ranted that it didn’t even make sense: If I had stolen someone’s copyrighted photo (which I didn’t, since I own the copyright) and was intending to make money off of it, isn’t that my liability for publishing copyrighted content and Galwreens is just a middleman? I mean, do we really want drugstore employees—no disrespect intended, my point is they are not trained in the incomprehensible warren of copyright law or they wouldn’t be working there—to be the gatekeepers of ownership rights?

This morning I did a little bit of research and it turns out that… well, I can’t actually tell you how it turns out. The rabbit-hole is deeper than I imagined and I already had a pretty good clue about how messy copyright laws are. The bottom line, from what I can gather, is that Galwreens and other places I haven’t dealt with like Wal-Mart are engaging in a bit of excessive CYA with their “don’t sell it without a release if it looks professional.” Despite a mention I found in a thread about a previous lawsuit leveled at Wal-Mart, I couldn’t actually find mention of such a case (though it could be because there is a lot more reporting on a case in which a family was reported for child endangerment when trying to get the ubiquitous “bathtub” photos printed, and all my search terms seemed to be too common with those stories). Some people made a reasonable case that reproducing copyrighted works is illegal and could open a door for lawsuits against photo labs who do so unknowingly, but again, the fear ought to be low there especially for photographs since Kinko’s entire business model operates on the principle that customers are responsible for what they duplicate, not the service provider who enables it. I doubt you’d have an easy time arguing that it’s less likely someone would violate copyright laws at Kinko’s than at Galwreens or Target’s photo kiosk.

A couple of articles on Techdirt mention the phenomenon, saying basically it’s hard to blame the employees who are probably threatened with loss of their job for not following a paranoid company policy and of course there are two sides to any contentious issue, as seen in this Flickr thread (dissenting comment starts here). And it probably shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that it’s mostly all about the money since printing photos is big business, one which everyone involved with wants to protect.

I should note that I don’t really hold Snapfish liable in any of this since they were merely the transport mechanism which provided Galwreens with our digital file. I suppose they get a cut of the profits from the drugstore for this service and perhaps they could have assisted by providing some kind of legally binding copyright form along with the submission which would have released the prints automatically, but that’s more a feature request and I’m reasonably certain they don’t have any influence over how protective the deliverers choose to be—even at the expense of their own profits. Because at this point it’s coming down to this: Galwreens will give me my photographs without forcing me to jump through ridiculous hoops to prove I took them or I’ll take my business elsewhere, right after I’m 100% satisfied that they’ve destroyed the prints in their possession. Because I am the copyright holder, and I get to say what happens with them.

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2 thoughts on “The Case of the Too-Good Photograph


    This is still so crazy to me, especially given the printing I’ve done in the past. I wonder if things would be different now if I tried printing those same photos? (I haven’t done much in the past year.) Or is it just Galwreens and similar places? I have printed a) my own photos which I thought were pretty darn good and b) photos taken by actual professionals who we paid a certain amount of money to for the rights to print and publish online as we saw fit; nobody has ever said anything. I mostly print at Mpix for things I am going to put on the wall because it is really nice quality, or Snapfish for more casual uses (with the prints being sent to me). I guess I do have a vague memory of clicking a box saying I had the legal right to print these pictures, and maybe that is enough CYA for those companies?

  2. ironsoap Post author

    The update: I spoke to the manager and they told me the solution is simple enough (apparently it was a training issue with the clerk I spoke to): They have a standard form you can fill out and sign which relieves Walgree- uh, Glawreens of any liability. A form the clerk just didn’t know existed. So I went down, filled out the form (presented to me by a revolting man with a stench of decaying onions and a habit of smacking his overly dry lips for no obvious reason) and paid for my prints. The problem was, the cropping I did didn’t take into account the print size (having them printed was Nik’s idea; I didn’t crop it with that in mind) and since they don’t pay any attention and crop from the center, Callie’s head is cut off badly in the final result. The moral of the story: It’s probably better to use a dedicated photo lab who knows what they’re doing and can give you quality service, even if it costs a bit more.

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