How I nearly lost Photo Stealers and why it is more relevant than ever

Apr 1, 2024

Corey Balazowich

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

How I nearly lost Photo Stealers and why it is more relevant than ever

Apr 1, 2024

Corey Balazowich

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

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Why Photo Stealers is still relevant in today's age of AI

I started Photo Stealers back in 2012, where I mostly named and shamed ‘fauxtographers’ who steal images from other photographers. They would often post them to their own platforms in the representation of their own work or as ‘inspiration’ for a session they’d like to photograph.

I have dealt with many difficult people over the past twelve years. However, this past month has really taken me through hell and back with a federal lawsuit and, ultimately, the unprecedented takedown of my website. My name’s Corey Balazowich and I am the human that is behind Photo Stealers, and this is my story.

A brief history

Many moons ago (about 2009, if I remember correctly), I somehow started to become the person to go to when trying to find stolen images online. It started in a Flickr photography group that I was in (shout out to SWPB!) but broadened to Twitter.

This was long before Google implemented reverse image searching, and it was mostly me having a pretty good eye and recollection for different photographer’s styles and/or being able to Google a description of the photo well enough to land where the image was online. 

As time went on, more and more photographers were coming forward with fauxtographers that were using images that weren’t their own to represent their own body of work. I realized that I needed an actual home base for what I was doing so that people could more easily find out if a photographer they were looking to book was using stolen photos. Thus, Photo Stealers was born, so to speak. 

sample for a "borrowed" photo
sample for a “borrowed” photo, and calling it out

In 2012, I finally moved onto Tumblr and started to streamline my process, showing the stolen image alongside the original sources whenever I was able to find them and making my ‘home’ on the internet. Eventually, I moved to a proper domain from Tumblr, but the main format of the website remained the same.

I have since expanded to having a platform on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Discord and TikTok as well. Now, 12 years later, I’ve honestly lost count of the number of fauxtographers that I’ve posted about, but it’s easily close to a thousand or more. 

Photo ‘shysters’

In recent years I’ve also posted about “Photo Shysters.” These people may not have stolen images but have a lengthy history of taking money from clients and ghosting/not showing/not delivering the files after doing the work. Sometimes, it is photography “educators” who take money from photographers and fail to host the workshop.

How it works

Each post that I make generally starts with a submission from someone. I don’t go out trolling looking for stolen photos. Often, it’s from a photographer that’s been stolen from and alerted, sometimes, it’s from a client. Other times, it is from someone who noticed something was off about a fauxtographer’s gallery.

I never take what someone says to me at face value, and I start my research on my own, digging into the photos on the fauxtographer’s platforms and using Google Reverse Image Search and other tools to try to find the original source. Generally, it’s pretty easy to tell which of the two is the original content creator, but I also verify my hunch by checking the file names, date stamps and metadata. For any text I run it through CopyScape and check any similarities. 

Once I know that a person has stolen images and/or plagiarised text on their website, I build the post and publish it on my various platforms. I then notify all the original copyright holders of the theft, with a link to where their work is on the fauxtographer’s platform, my blog post about the theft and often include instructions on how and where to DMCA the copyrighted works to get the images taken down from whatever platform it is hosted on. 

Holding people accountable

Over the years, I’ve not only helped thousands of photographers protect their intellectual rights but I’ve helped clients too. 

One client, Nick Steffen, said that my blog post about his wedding photographer was key in getting justice after she cancelled their wedding at the last minute. They were able to show my post to the DA on the case, which helped the clients get refunds. The photographer was then fined $30,000, has 4 years of probation, and isn’t now allowed to operate a photography business in the state. 

“As both a lawyer and a photographer, I take very seriously the work that Photo Stealers has done,” Stephanie A. Richer, says. “This is more than a spat between photographers. Using photography that is not yours to market yourself is a fraud perpetrated on consumers.

“A bride seeking wedding photography, parents wishing to capture memories of their child’s first birthday, a woman making the brave decision to have herself photographed for boudoir – all of these folks and more should be able to trust that what they see advertised is what they can expect, as well as know that they are dealing with an ethical business,” Stephanie continues. “As I would ask a witness in court, “If you’re lying about this, what else are you lying about?””

Of course, while running this blog there’s been highs and lows. I’ve taken on “big” photographers and faced the fire more than once when posting about someone that many idolized (Jasmine Star, Doug Gordon, Lisa Saad, to name a few).

Lawsuits and death threats

I’ve had fauxtographers go absolutely bananas after posting to the extent they get known within the community for the crazy things they pulled in the aftermath. However none could have prepared me for this recent fight with AEllis. 

AEllis, who currently goes by the alias Art D’Artisan, at the last count had at least 263 different pieces of alleged copyrighted work on his website that did not belong to him. I originally made a post about him in January, citing 26 of these items.

While researching him I found out that he also had done this previously in 2021, allegedly being caught stealing images when he was known as Seaside Boudoir. The original photographers from 2021 and the new batch from 2024 have been having ongoing issues trying to get their images removed from his website and social media platforms.

This is because he files counter-notifications to the DMCA takedown requests claiming he has rights to these images. Squarespace has mostly decided to take his side in the matter and repost the majority of the images that have been attempted to be removed.

After my post, he made threats to my life and then added me to a Federal lawsuit he already had going against photographers that he stole images from in 2021. Currently, that lawsuit is pending awaiting approval of his pauper application so he can proceed without paying any filing fees. 

In a turn that no one expected, AEllis filed a DMCA takedown request with HostGator, claiming he had the rights to the images under penalty of perjury. Unbeknownst to me, he initially filed this in January and refiled again on March 8th, which they finally took seriously. 

Website down

HostGator reached out to me on March 8th listing the 26 image files that AEllis claimed in his DMCA takedown request and stated that I had to remove the files. I replied with a counterclaim for Fair Use, but they replied and said their policy was that I still had to remove the images, and then they would decide if they could be restored or not. Stupid policy, but I complied, removing the images. 

On Tuesday afternoon, they sent an email stating that I didn’t comply with the removal of the images, so they had taken the website down until I removed them. If I didn’t remove the images within 10 days, they’d be deleting it permanently. Needless to say, I was upset. 

Cannot win

The more I thought about it, the more I kept returning to the conclusion that no matter what I did, AEllis would still file his fictitious DMCA takedown requests. At this point, in my opinion, I believe that he’d even claim it on a post that wasn’t about him out of spite, so even just unpublishing his post wouldn’t stop the onslaught from him. 

I went ahead and posted to Facebook because I just didn’t see this going in my favor. Previous history had shown that AEllis would win the DMCA war because he would lie about his rights to the images and I wasn’t hopeful about HostGator believing me regarding Fair Use. 

Thanks to my support network, I had a lot of people reach out and offer to help in any way they could, and a few lawyers were among those. One was able to send over a more formal-sounding counter-notification to HostGator for me, and I was able to get some sound advice regarding my steps moving forward.

Many followers flooded HostGator’s social media, demanding that my site be restored. My GoFundMe gained some additional donations. It was all very heartwarming to see, as this is often a very lonely job. 

Website is restored

Eventually HostGator must have seen reason since the site was restored about 24 hours after being deactivated. They still, to this point have not messaged me regarding if they have sided with me and I can put the images back up or what the status is of the page. 

I have filed a claim with the Copyright Claims Board against AEllis for misrepresentation under DMCA. That is awaiting a compliance review. This is what I was advised was the best method to deal with the fake DMCA claim versus filing a counterclaim in the lawsuit that still isn’t certain that it will be valid due to the pending status of the filing fee/pauper forms.

The future

In this age of artificial intelligence and generated images, who knows if blatantly stealing photographs will still be a thing. Perhaps we will be seeing more copyright claims and infringement problems as time moves on and we begin to understand better what is happening in the visual arts world and new technology.

What I do know is that going forward, I don’t plan on doing anything differently than I have done for the past 12 years. However, I may double-check to make sure these fauxtographers aren’t felons!

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About Corey Balazowich

Corey Balazowich is the one woman show behind the website Photo Stealers. Corey works to uphold copyright law and help photographers fight back when people steal and misuse their photographs and text. Over the past twelve years, Corey has helped thousands of individuals protect their intellectual property and also helped victims of fraud and expose unscrupulous photography businesses.

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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One response to “How I nearly lost Photo Stealers and why it is more relevant than ever”

  1. Sean Avatar
    Sean

    Kick their asses, Corey!