Home Sculptor Business The Unsettling Story of a Public Domain Photo Scam

The Unsettling Story of a Public Domain Photo Scam

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In 2013, photographer Kyle Cassidy uploaded one of his images to Wikimedia Commons and released it into the public domain. That means anyone can use it free of charge, even modify it, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License — so long as they credit him properly. Nearly seven years later, the photo was at the center of a bizarre scam involving affiliate links, a fake copyright enforcement company, and a Wikipedia user improbably named “Aldwin Sturdivant.”

Cassidy had initially taken the photo, a dynamic shot of journalist Peter Sagal going for a run along Lake Michigan in Chicago, for the back cover of Sagal’s book. When he noticed that the image illustrating the Wikipedia entry for “running” left a lot to be desired, however, Cassidy asked Sagal if he could update it with the picture they had taken. Sagal agreed, and the photo entered the boundless world of the public domain.

“It was really fun seeing it show up all over the place,” Cassidy told Hyperallergic. “I’d get Google alerts and it would be on the website of some hospital talking about how to lower your blood pressure, or a fitness pamphlet. There was a hospital in the Middle East that made up a whole fictional bio for the photo.”

Among those who reused the image was Eric San Juan, a New Jersey-based writer, who featured “Running Man” in a 2018 article about exercise on his blog. At the time, he properly attributed the image to Cassidy, listed as its author on Wikipedia.

In November of this year, San Juan received an unexpected email from one Aldwin Sturdivant, who claimed to be the photographer and asked if San Juan could link the image back to their website.

“I am very pleased to see that my creative work is being used on this article found on your site,” Sturdivant wrote. “Simple image credit to my site is all I ask. It motivates me to continue uploading images,” they added. According to their email signature, Sturdivant was a Content Editor at a company called Green Cap Marketing, which claimed to track down photo thieves and help photographers get royalties for their work. (Green Cap Marketing’s website has since been taken down.)

A screenshot of the email Eric San Juan received from the scammer, who went by Aldwin Sturdivant. (courtesy of Eric San Juan)

San Juan was sure he had credited the image correctly to Cassidy, but he double-checked the Wikimedia page just in case. Sure enough, the caption now read: “Photo taken by A. Sturdivant from Total Shape using Samsung WB35F.” San Juan acknowledged the error and responded to Sturdivant’s email asking him to send over their website link.

“What he sent back was a website that had nothing to do with him or the photo, and the photo attribution they asked for was for a business, not the photographer,” San Juan recounts on his blog. “It was a link affiliate site, a commercial site that earns money through clicks.”

Screenshot of Sturdivant’s response to San Juan. (courtesy of Eric San Juan)

The response sent alarm bells ringing for San Juan, who decided to dig deeper. He located Green Cap Marketing’s website (still live at the time), but the phone number listed appeared to be incomplete or fake. He also couldn’t find any records of Sturdivant or his photographic work. Meanwhile, he easily located Cassidy’s website and emailed him to clarify whether he was affiliated with either entity.

The Philly-based photographer replied. The image was his, he confirmed, and had no connection to Sturdivant or Green Cap. Cassidy also said he took the image with a Nikon D800, an off-camera strobe, and two assistants — not a Samsung WB35F, as Sturdivant’s deceptive Wikipedia caption alleged.

At first, Cassidy thought Sturdivant’s strategy involved taking authorship for photographs in order to falsely sue for copyright violations, but the reality turned out to be even stranger: the scammer used public domain images to insert affiliate links, websites that generate payment based on visitor clicks. When Cassidy alerted Wikipedia editors, they immediately took the account down. According to a Twitter thread about the scam posted by Cassidy, dozens of images were attributed to “Aldwin Sturdivant” or “A Sturdivant” on Wikipedia, proving that San Juan’s experience was not an isolated incident.

A photo of Cassidy taking “Running Man” in Chicago in 2013. (courtesy of Kyle Cassidy)

According to Wikimedia, the specific tactic of replacing photo attributions is one editors rarely, if ever, come across.

“This scam uses sockpuppets, which is something editors see relatively often, and the Wikimedia communities have a variety of tools and processes that they use to identify and halt such schemes,” a Wikimedia spokesperson told Hyperallergic. “Sockpuppet” is a term that refers to a fake online identity created for abusive purposes, such as deceptively marketing a product.

“For this case, editors identified the problematic behavior from a number of sockpuppet accounts, discussed the issue on the site’s administrator’s noticeboard (a central location where users can raise serious issues and ask for resolution), and administrators have placed blocks on the offending accounts,” the spokesperson continued.

Cassidy says this specific scam hurts artists who benefit from making their images freely available on Wikipedia. “Having a well-placed Wikipedia photo can actually turn into money in a couple of ways,” he told Hyperallergic. Although uploading photographs under a creative commons license means he isn’t selling the images, doing so has helped him gain exposure, grow his network, and get on the radar of book editors who do pay for his work.

“So in that way it’s definitely paid for me to give away photos to Wikipedia — in actual financial ways and in cool-fun ways and also in ways of feeling like I’m giving back to the community,” he said. “When someone kneecaps an artist’s work they can just inject themselves into that chain and maybe not siphon work away, but interrupt the connection.”

Photographers can take steps to protect themselves, such as ensuring their information is embedded in the Exchangeable Image File (EXIF) metadata for the files they upload, Cassidy says. He sometimes also adds a URL to his website to the image in a way that is visually unobtrusive, but makes it easier for people to find him and associate the photo with his work.

But the responsibility also falls upon those who utilize the images — journalists, authors, bloggers, and anyone else.

“You have to treat it like anything else and vet your sources,” San Juan told Hyperallergic. “Treat Wikis as a portal to primary sources, not as a source itself.” He suggests using tools such as Tineye, a reverse image search engine popular among photographers, to identify the original image.

“People have the notion that copyright on the Internet is a murky area, since images are so often posted freely and without attribution, but that’s not the case at all,” San Juan added. “Every photo you see online, someone took it, someone owns it, and it’s incumbent upon us to ensure we recognize that. This is especially true in journalism, where knowing your sources is an integral part of doing the job well.”

Despite the unsavory experience, Cassidy says he does not feel discouraged from releasing photographs into the public domain in the future.

“I use Wikipedia all the time and I’m really grateful for the people who spend so much time working on it to make sure it’s there and it’s free,” he said. “If anything, I’m heartened by how swiftly the Wiki Commons folks figured out how this was all working and moved to fix it.”

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