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                   January 23, 2015

The success of "Mr. Twister" and similar social media pages: built on a foundation of copyright infringement

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Are you partnering with or even helping to fund a popular social media project? You might want to do some background checking to see how that page got to where they are before you associate yourself with them or give them your hard-earned money.

A common (illicit) practice in social media is to use infringement-based "content aggregation" to build one's initial following, that is, copying wildly popular photos and videos such as breaking news imagery and iconic photographs. Instead of sharing others' images properly (using the 'share' or 'retweet' button), these individuals will simply upload a separate copy of the image or video to their page's account. By doing this, all of the social media benefit of the image - called 'engagement' - goes to the infringer's page, and not the original photographer's. The act is justified in their minds by giving the photographer a "credit line".

Photographers know that "credit lines" don't mean anything in the realm of publishing and broadcast. No one pays any attention to a "credit". There is no residual web traffic, no increase in sales. The "exposure" is worthless. It is the same thing online: a credit line on the internet is just as worthless as ones in TV and print publications. No one pays attention to them, and there is very little residual traffic. In the case of a social media image, viewers will not go through the trouble of locating the original - they will simply interact with the copy they see in their feed. This is especially true of mobile users. They will simply like, commment on and re-share that copy of the image. The original photographer sees absolutely no benefit! The thieving social media page owners know this - it's why they do what they do.

There are a few successful social media entities out there with large followings that were built employing this type of copyright infringement, and very little else. They got their start copying images from storm storm observers, news photographers, TV stations and private users, and attracted their large followings in precisely this way. Without their theft of others' images, they would not be where they are right now. I will not include links to them as I do not want to give them any backlinks. If you'd like to see the examples, contact me privately and I'll send them to you.

Some say that this is "no big deal" and "how things are done these days". That's a cop out. If a TV station, network, magazine or corporation used our images without permission or payment, the expedition community would be in an uproar. A social media page doing the same thing to become wildly successful is no different! When a social media page starts getting followers in the high 5 figures, it becomes something that can be turned into an income source. And many such page owners do just that. You see them using the audience to sell prints, calendars, videos and other merchandise. Such large followings also make crowdfunding campaigns (Kickstarter, GoFundMe, etc) successful.

One such successful page that is enjoying an increasingly accepted and prominent place in the storm observing community is "Mr. Twister". The individual operating this page, Zach Roberts, built his following by copying the work of others over the course of many years. In October of 2012, he stole my image of the Okawville, Illinois tornado without permission or payment (like he'd done with countless others), copying it to his page where it competed directly with mine for views, shares and new follows:

Mr. Twister Copyright Infringement

When confronted, Roberts responded defiantly and with insults, akin to many of the more difficult infringers I've dealt with over the years. He was sent an invoice for use of the image, which of course has never been paid.

Am I just holding a grudge about this one image? No. I have information from at least two other storm observers whos images were stolen and posted to the Mr. Twister page. And that is just from individuals I know. His page's feed is filled with images taken from other photographers without permission. During major weather events, he has copied images from news networks, newspapers, other individuals' Twitter accounts and AP photographers. For example, during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, he copied some of the most iconic images from that event to his feed, enjoying a significant boost to his following as those images were shared thousands of times. That's the pattern of how pages like this operate - they use other photographers as stepping stones on their way to success. I was just one of them.

Mr. Twister has solicited funds through a Kickstarter campaign and thus used his infringment-built following to raise money. Also, it appears dozens of storm observers are voluntarily partnering with his page's photography group, apparently unaware of the page's past history.

I'm putting up this blog post in order to publicly call out Mr. Twister and those like him, as well as informing fellow storm observers that now support and partner with Roberts' page and business about how Mr. Twister grew to prominence. They've grown into popular, successful entities squarely on the backs of other photographers.

And no, this isn't a case of jealousy or something petty of the sort, as I'm sure I'll be accused of for making this post (mark my words, you'll see that in responses to this). There are many successful observer individuals and groups who worked hard to get where they are with their own resources, and I have never criticized any of them. There's nothing wrong with being successful or having a large social media following. The IS something wrong with becoming successful via unethical means, and that's the problem I have with Mr. Twister and pages like it. And since I'm one of the countless photographers that Roberts used to reach his position, I have every right to make a public statement about it.

I hope by putting up this page that some followers of Mr. Twister and other popular weather/expeditions pages with a history of copyright infringement will find it and learn the truth behind the success of some of the pages they follow - that is, they were built by stealing the hard work of individual photographers. Their success is ill-gotten gain, pure and simple. This is a legitimate scandal that needs to be exposed, and it's only fair for this page to remain online until things have been made right.

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The following comments were posted before this site switched to a new comment system on August 27, 2016:

Well said
- Posted by sally

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