Photos of disabled mugging victim Alan Barnes from Tyneside prompted an outpouring of public support and were taken by staff at Newcastle-based North News and Pictures.
The picture summed up the vulnerability of the man who had prompted beautician, Katie Cutler, to do something about it. She started a fund to help Alan, which triggered a tsunami of sympathy and raised hundreds of thousands of pounds.
But ten days after the story broke, the agency noticed its photographs turning up online and in print under the byline of another photographer, and a London-based syndication agency.
North News and Pictures, MD Ted Ditchburn said: “The story first and foremost was, and is, a heartwarming one; of good overcoming bad, the best in human nature beating the worst.
“Katie’s idea to set up a website to raise money for Allan, and the worldwide reaction to that, is what created the elements that made the story one that appeal to hundreds of millions around the world.
“We covered the story from the very beginning and a number of our staff worked closely with Katie and Allan throughout. Our pictures went in many newspapers and on many news broadcasts along with the video, both on-line on the day, and the next day, and subsequent days, in print, and broadcast. That was great and doubly so given the number of people we committed to the coverage.
“It was 10 days later when we saw one used in the Independent online, with a byline of the Rex syndication agency.”
It took only a few hours for North News’ picture editor Raoul Dixon to find out the pictures had reached Rex through another North East photographer before being sent on around the world.
Ditchburn explained: “This was a complex situation as National newspapers maintained they had simply used pictures supplied by Rex in good faith, as images from a long established syndication agency.
“Rex in turn maintained they took the pictures from the other photographer in good faith, so they maintained they weren’t to blame either.”
In the end, Ditchburn decided against legal action to recover the losses in this instance as it would have involved suing the local individual sole trader but instead has chosen to use the incident to raise the issue more widely.
“Simply doing nothing isn’t an option, as these kind of situations are happening more and more, so given the situation we decided to try a different approach here , to use the incident to highlight the various issues around copyright theft, and make the wider general public, more aware of it.
“The pictures, of Katie and Allan had already been widely used in many newspapers and TV news broadcasts; so if newspapers and syndicators, who read and check all the papers and websites far more closely than the general public every day can’t pick up on these pictures, then one wonders how many others could be slipping through the net.
“My own view is that this is a problem that arises in part because people seem to feel copyright theft doesn’t count as serious theft for some reason.”
“While beyond the traditional media companies are various social media platforms and giant internet companies who sometimes appear to have their own vested interests in encouraging a view that copyright law, especially on pictures, is an irrelevancy that just gets in their way.”
* Have you run into similar problems? What’s the best solution? We’d love to hear your views via the comments below.