Race Photos: Are They Ours for the Taking?

The mark of a thief?
The mark of a thief?

Photographers work hard to get halfway decent photos of their subjects, color correct and edit them, and return photo proofs to their clients in a reasonable amount of time. They’ve invested thousands of dollars in high-end equipment and photo editing computer software, and hundreds of hours into learning their trade. They capture the moments that make our lives, moments we can never get back and never re-live, emotions and settings that are fleeting, and freeze those moments in time so that we can have them forever.

Runners work hard to halfway decent race times, celebrate how they will, and recover the best they know how. They’ve invested thousands of dollars in proper nutrition, running shoes and sports bras, and hundreds of hours into training and practice. They laugh, cry, sweat and bleed on the course, endure moments of horrendous defeat and glorious triumph, and go into each race not knowing what adventures (misadventures?) are waiting for them between the start and the finish lines.

When one of those photographers happens to be there documenting those adventures, what rights do we have to those images?

I don’t have many pictures of myself running; only the proofs that race-day photographers took and I screen grabbed from their websites after the fact. Sure, they have the photographer’s identifying marks stamped all over them, but they’re of, well, me. And I know I’m not alone. Just take a look at Daily Mile and see all the profile photos with a big orange “PROOF” on the forehead.

For example, I did an all women 5K trail race (during which I learned some lessons that are fodder for a future post), and near the end was passing another runner who didn’t look like she was having as much fun as she should be. So, I got up next to her, and yelled at her. That’s what you do when a complete stranger’s not having fun, right? You scream at them? Well, maybe that’s just me.

The 1896 Olympic marathon.
I’m thinking this is not a problem these 1896 Olympic marathoners faced. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At any rate, I yelled at this poor woman to pick up the pace, and she did, and we raced through the finish line together. I beat her, but I held up a sign at the end saying she had kicked my butt, which made her smile even more.

The race photographer got some great photos of the whole thing, and a link to the photos was emailed to me a few days after the race. If you want to own your race photos, you have to pay for them. You can even right click and “save photo as” or “download image.” You have to get really creative and use a screen capture tool of some sort to capture your own photos. Which begs the question – was it wrong of me to capture these images and save them for my very own? It’s not like I bandited the whole race, but maybe I, like many fellow runners, bandited the photos.

Here, maybe I’m just making excuses, but it seems like you could at least get to choose one picture to download for free, included with your race registration. Or maybe be able to download thumbnails for a buck, some sort of gimme. Seriously it’s $39.95 to download my photos! It’s MY OWN FACE they’re selling back to me. I own it!

Burglar (comics)
I knewwhen he ran passed me he was the type to use the proofs on social media rather than paying an outlandish sum for a digital image. (If Spiderman were a race photographer) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But the issue at hand isn’t who owns the face. It’s who owns the photos. I did a quick web search to try and glean what I could about the dry topic of copyright law, specifically as it applied to photography, and discovered (among other things) that when a photographer feels like their copyright has been jeopardized, they can take any of several courses of action –

  • fuggedaboutit
  • take advantage of the free advertising potential by requesting to be appropriately credited
  • prep a DMCA Take-Down Notice
, which – if I understand it correctly – goes straight to the internet service provider, who removes the images from the offending website
  • write a letter to the jerk who stole the photo and explain that the use was not authorized
  • have a lawyer write a letter to the jerk who stole the photo and explain that the use was not authorized
  • file a copyright infringement lawsuit (and that is why there are none of those proofs appearing in this post – Salty doesn’t want to get sued!)

While I did post some of these bandited photos on social media, I haven’t gone to the extreme of editing away the photographer’s trademark. I get to sleep at night knowing that I’m giving this particular photographer free advertising by leaving his watermarks on the photos. In fact, maybe he should pay me! Okay, that’s a little extreme…

What do you think, Salties? Is it okay to screen-grab the proofs of race photos of yourself? Is it something you should be entitled to or is it stealing?

A 30-something runner striving to hit that ever-elusive BQ. Mother of two young teens, fan of fantasy/fiction/sci-fi (<-read: geek), with a fascination for tortoises and a love of the outdoors.

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  1. It is copyright infringement to take the photos without paying for them.

    I get the whole thing that photos are way too expensive, but photographers have a lot of costs in covering races. One thing we’ve seen local photographers doing is working with the race directors to build it into race costs so that participants get their digital photos after the race free. Yes, it increases entry fees, but it is a great happy medium in my opinion.

    1. I think it would be a great idea to build the cost into race entry fees! At the race I was talking about above, there were six photos, but the photographer wanted nearly forty bucks for me to download them. At more than six dollars a photo, I still think the prices for the download are too high. Just like the way many races now offer the option of paying a little more for a tech tee, registrants should have the option to upgrade their race fees by a modest amount (I’m thinking ten dollars) and get to choose three of their photos, or something like that.

    2. Legally, there is no question. But ethically, it’s much grayer. Very few runners think of it as stealing it seems. But from a photog’s standpoint, they need to make a living. Definitely a great subject for a discussion!

    3. MAJOR perk when a race provides good race photos as part of the entry fee! This Portland (Maine) Half Marathon did that and despite a meh finishing time, I ended up with some of the best race photos of my life, for free. http://thesethingshappentootherpeople.blogspot.com/2013/07/old-port-half-marathon-race-report-or.html

      But if I have to be honest, it’s just that — a perk — and not in the Top Five reasons I choose a race.

      I wonder whether race photographers would have more people pay for their pictures (as opposed to screen-capturing watermarked proofs) if they were, say, $10 instead of $40.

    4. i don’t know about you but 1/2 the time my photos look awful! or the photog is on the other side of me and misses my bib (i pin my bib to my shorts) and my pics get lost in unidentified. not a single picture from the last race I ran would be worth a single penny to me! So adding it to my entry fee is not ideal. But then again, paying $25 for a single download is absolutely ridiculous! A local race I just ran used a local photog and the photos were only $4 each! And they emailed the digi copies to me. well worth the $8 to get the only 2 photos of me that were actually decent.

  2. So very wrong. The entire point of the “Proof” mark is to prevent people from screenshot and stealing them. I cringe every time I see someone using them. If you are not willing to pay the $$ for the photo (and I am not) then deal with it. Does anyone honestly need a photo of themselves running that badly?

    1. Kris – I have to admit that I’ve sometimes kept proofs of the kids’ school pictures and pinned them up next to my desk at work, even if I didn’t buy the pictures. Is it different to use hard-copy photo proofs versus digital ones, or still wrong?

      1. That’s a good point. I guess keeping those (I’ve done that too) is understandable because they were sent to us with the understanding that we may buy more, but the ones screen snap shot from the photographers website are, to me, clearly stealing. I wouldn’t judge anyone for keeping the kids proofs.

  3. I must admit, I have screen captured some of my own photos before. However, I think that we should be free to use our own proofs as they are (with the watermarks), just like when they send proofs in the mail.

  4. I’m guilty of screen capping proofs, but for the most part keep those on my hard drive for my own record. How is that different than the mailed proofs that I glued into my running scrapbook back in the pre-digital era?

    1. Thanks MG, I feel like the issue of ownership and intellectual property has gotten a lot more complicated since the advent of the interwebs, and it’s hard to know if what seemed okay back then is still okay. Back in the day, the photo proof never had to be given back just because you decided not to buy the photo. So why should we have to “give back” digital images?

      1. Yes, I think the reason it is harder now is that most people don’t buy prints. They only want them digitally to share on their blogs or social networks.

  5. As a competitive runner, I honestly don’t see the comparison being even remotely close..regarding time, blood, sweat, injuries, tears and time spent preparing/training for an event versus that of the photographer (no offense). The runner comes to an event knowing that they’re going to give it their all no matter the outcome. Running races have been around for many years without photographers trying to get a piece of the action. Really??–photographers believe that the already high prices for races should be higher to include YOUR FEES?? I hate to be slightly harsh here…but photographers–please don’t come if your going to ‘chase’ down us–copywright infringers. Just let us run our race in peace! This is our time, our effort, our sacrifice, our fun!…if your wanting money for your art well maybe your in the wrong business. Like others I get to sleep at night knowing that I’m giving photographers free advertising by leaving his watermarks on the photos. In fact, they should pay us!

    1. I have professional photographers in my family, and I actually do think that it’s a good comparison. My sister in law runs her own photography business, and it took years of persistence for her to be able to purchase high-end photo equipment, years of patience and practice to build up the skill set to take really great shots, and then a whole lot of dedication to learn how to edit the pictures just enough to make them flawless. I’ve watched her practice, and sacrifice, and give away her work for free as she was building a name for herself. I’ve never had a race photographer not let me “run my race in peace.” That being said, I DO think that the fees associated with downloading your own race photos are outlandish, and that the photographers might ultimately make more money by offering up an affordable solution. Alternatively, the rest of the race volunteers are just that – VOLUNTEERS – donating their time to whatever cause that particular race is supporting. Photographers could probably offer up free race photo downloads and write it off as a donation.

  6. Definitely copy right infringement, but one that just doesn’t sit well at all with many people. As you said, it is your face! Most races even have in the waiver that you agree to have your photo taken and that they can basically do whatever they want with the photo. So not only do you have to pay for your own picture, but you are agreeing that they can use your likeness (your photo) for anything they want.

    Luckily most of the races in Rochester, NY where I do most of my running are photographed by a great team of local photo buffs who make all the photos available for free.

  7. I’ve ran in exactly two races, and I screencapped the images of me from the photographer’s site for both of them so I could share. I had no interest in having a high-res file to have transferred to physical media, I just wanted to share the picture of me covered in mud and running a race w/ my friends.

    I get that this is how they are making a living, but to me when they post the (low res) pic to be viewed publicly for free, then the product that they are *selling* is the high-res version.

    If I were them, rather than trying to hold to legal protection, or appealing to the morality of racers I’d figure out a way to monetize those like me who want some of the service. As a start, I’d post those pictures at 1/4 the size they currently do, where they don’t look great online, and then sell a $5 or $10 option to download them in “social media” format which would still be lower resolution, but plenty for a good FB or Twitter pic.

    1. I agree that that would be a very smart biz move for the photogs! I think they should charge < $5 for a low res file for social media use. Win-win and working with the tide rather than against!

  8. This from my sister-in-law, the photographer (mentioned above):
    Unfortunately for photographers there is no way to keep them from getting stolen if you put them on the internet. If you don’t want it stolen, don’t put it up. At the same time, they’re not getting paid by whoever organized the race (I’m guessing), they took their time, a crap ton of photos, more time prepping the photos and putting them out there. They spent a weekend day (minimum) away from their family in an attempt to support them. The pictures can’t possibly be very valuable to the runners if they don’t want to pay for them. They are basically telling the photographer there is absolutely no value to their time and talent when the runner or whoever steals it. I do agree that $40 is a little steep.

  9. You know what? I’ve bought photos from a couple races, and yeah, it was expensive. But as a person who’s been there and relied on someone valuing my work and paying its worth (I spent a little time as a nature photographer), it was worth it to me. The races in question were both really great races, and the photos were nice. There were lots of photos of my from both those races, so paying the fee to download the whole package was worth it.

    On the other hand, I’ve also screen-grabbed a couple pictures too, when there was only one. The price was the same to download the one as it was to download an entire package, which I thought was too much. But since it is, after all, my face, I have no qualms about keeping the picture for a memory of this or that race. I’d be disinclined to use it on a blog (like this one), because that seems somehow unfair. But keeping my own face for my own self? No problem!

    I always thought to myself that, if the photos were a dollar apiece, every single runner would buy all their photos. I’d even venture to say if the photos were three dollars apiece almost all the runners would buy. And that might add up to a lot more dollars made than if three runners buy at $40 apiece.

  10. Prettysporty.com, which is Shalane Flanagan’s mom, takes multiple photos at track races and some road races and it’s $2-$3/download I think for high quality images. I agree that if they decreased the price, photos would skyrocket! I wonder if marathonfoto or event brite can see this? Well, if they do, take note!

  11. It’s theft. Like it, don’t like it, doesn’t matter. It’s theft. Copyright infringement.

    What’s amazing to me is the number of people, almost everyone on this thread, who know its illegal, yet admit they’ve done it, and think that “it’s only a little theft, so it’s ok. Right?” Wrong.

    It does not matter how much the photographer chooses to charge. Welcome to a free market economy. Don’t like the price? Don’t buy the photo. It’s simple. Because I assure you, the “I didn’t like the price” argument doesn’t hold up in a court of law.

    If everyone stops buying (and doesn’t steal them), the price will drop. But if everyone buys, that too will keep prices low because of competition. It’s only thievery that causes the price to rise.

    Do you teach your children that its ok to steal a piece of candy, because it was just one small piece?!

    Oh, but wait… It’s your face, so it’s ok. Nope. Read the law. Even though you may happen to be captured in a photograph, it is not you – it is the artist’s interpretation of that moment in time. In fact, you do not need to sign a release. You are in a public place, therefore you have no expectation of privacy.

    I get a real kick out of the few of you who admitted they realize it is the photographers’ living, but still think it is ok to steal from them.

    I tell you what: go to work tomorrow and then the day after, and the day after – and when your HR department tells you that your paycheck is only a small portion of the overall company budget, therefore they are going to stop paying you but expect you to still be there working hard everyday – you tell them how it’s ok, because you just do it for the love of the job.

    Theft. No more should need to be said.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Greg! I think most people do not understand that it’s a copyright violation and viewed as theft. It’s so common to see proofs used on social media that it seems normal. I really appreciate you sharing your viewpoint as a professional. The fact that it’s a copyright violation alone is not deterring this from happening though. It happens anyway. There seems to be no disincentive to doing it! People could be incentivized to buy, by lowering prices. I do think if the race photos were cheaper it would happen less. I like the idea of selling a very low-res image for social media at a nominal price (our idea of nominal probably isn’t the same, though) At a minimum, there needs to be a little race photo screen grabber education about what they are really doing. From their perspective it seems harmless, but from yours it’s clearly not. Maybe the photo sites could educate people about copyright infringement – perhaps scream in huge red letters that it’s theft to screen grab the proofs? Or maybe work with the social media sites to warn people and then crack down?

  12. As a photographer and runner I see both sides of the argument. If people would actually buy the downloads instead of doing a screen shot of the proof the. Maybe photographers could charge less per picture. $40 seems steep, but it’s actually really cheap when it comes to portraits. I charge $100 digital downloads of a family portrait session and I’m really cheap! I know photogs that charge $200-300 for the downloads. I only shoot races that I’m pre-paid for and I don’t deal with the logistics of sorting and selling. I’m guessing that $40 a download works out to about $7-10/hr for the photog. It takes a crazy amount of time to sort & edit all the photos!!

  13. I get that photographers need to make their money too, but the amount they charge is part of the problem. For instance, I just ran the Indy 500 Mini Marathon – which has 30,000+ participants. The cheapest photo price on there is $24.95!!! I’m not shelling out $25 for a picture of my looking like a hot mess.

    BUT….if they were to charge reasonable prices for these unflattering snapshots of memorable events, say $5-10 per photo, I would totally consider purchasing them.

    1. AGREED! Most of the time my photos look so crappy (imagine a T-rex dinosaur having a seizure) I don’t even bother with screen shotting the proofs. Noone wants to see that crap!

  14. I’ve got two perspectives here – I’m a Runner and an Obstacle Race Photographer.

    As a runner, I have taken screen captures of pictures but never put them anywhere but my personal computer. I know it is bad but I just wanted a memory. I have also bought pictures that were really spectacular and not too expensive for the package.

    As a photographer, it offends me that someone would steal my hard work. Some races only pay the photographer a percentage of their sales so by stealing those photos, you are saying that their time, effort, hard work, and skill is not worth paying for. It is basically like stiffing a waitress at a restaurant. You didn’t pay them for their work.

    On the other hand, you could say that the picture fee should be rolled into the race registration fee. That is up to the people who organize the race and would make the fees go up. How happy would runners be who don’t want the pictures to pay extra for that? Or you could have the option to register with or without pictures but then isn’t that the same as just paying for them after the fact?

    One thing I can agree on is that the prices some of the companies charge is outrageous. $25 a digital download? You are crazy. My wedding pictures didn’t even cost that much. I also had an issue where some pictures of me were on my husband’s page but not mine (we were running together and my bib number was clearly visible). I wanted to download the package but I wanted ALL pictures of me. The company never contacted me back about my inquiry. Also not cool.

    Such a complicated subject!!

  15. All of our images are watermarked with our copyright notice. This protects us against someone trying to sell our images. We can’t prevent anyone from screen capturing a image, distributing them, or posting on Facebook…nor would we care. No one would purchase such an image so there is no reason for concern. We look at it as advertising. FYI…those photos are a result of countless hours in the field, paid photographers, post processing, uploading, and marketing, etc. So NO, those images DO NOT belong to you. We spend 10’s of thousands of dollars for staff and equipment to provide the athlete a journalistic record of his/her efforts that Uncle Bob can’t capture with his cell phone. All for less than one good meal. Please think about that the next time you see a photographer at a event, or, just bring along Uncle Bob.

  16. I know this is an old post, but as a runner and race photographer, I feel like there are some feelings I have that haven’t been represented in the other posts here.

    I was a runner first, and have completed distances from 5Ks to 50 milers and everything in between, and in becoming a professional photographer, shooting races seemed like a natural place to work. Plus it was never lost on me how encouraging it always was when I was dragging near the end of a race to have the previous finishers and supporters on the sidelines there to just cheer you on or give you an encouraging word, and I enjoy being in a situation where I can pass that on – even if it’s hard to be at these events and not be running them.

    Either way, simply put, screen-shotting images is theft. A type like downloading music or movies online is, where it’s the unlikelihood of getting caught that encourages the act. Posts like Paul Sherman’s response up there kinda amuse me, where he says that the runners put all the hard work into the training and running the race which it seems justifies a sense of entitlement to use the images without buying them. While no one is discounting how much work it takes to get race-ready, this misses out on the fact that photographers are just a vendor along the course. His opinion would be similar to implying that it would be okay to get a massage from one of the massage vendors at the finish line and then just get up and walk away without paying because of the effort made to participate in the run, or that if someone was selling bottles of water along the course – which is more common in longer distance bicycling events – that one could just take the water and leave because they are doing the work as a rider. Photographers are just another vendor, and for those who aren’t enticed by the product or the terms/prices, it’s easy enough to just not buy it. If someone wants pictures, it’s not hard to have a friend take some from the sidelines. Of course if the size or quality isn’t as good from the camera phone, well that’s the service the photographer provides.

    That being said, anyone who has worked or managed a retail operation knows there is going to be theft. Their job isn’t so much to stop it, as much as it is to reduce it. I don’t really lose any sleep over other runners screen-capping the images, it’s just going to be lower quality and have a watermark across it. (Runners who try to say that using screen-capped images is somehow less infringement because they’re providing advertising is kinda pointless. The watermark’s there to discourage you from using it; how many people saw a watermarked image of a friend and rushed to that photographer’s site to shop as a result?…)

    As a runner, I’ve only bought pictures once. A lot of the larger events charge outrageous rates, so I pass. It’s something I keep in mind at the races where I set my own prices – and also something that seems like less of an issue at smaller events, which I’ve always felt were more fun to run and shoot anyway.

    And I know that if I were to be paid a flat fee in order to provide my images to the race organizer to either give out or sell at their discretion, that fee generally comes to less than $1 per runner, so any relative registration markup would be nominal (a fraction of the cost of a beer at the finish line that some runners buy).

    One alternative I’ve seen and started experimenting with is either me or the race director finding a photo sponsor, in which case I charge a flat fee and provide one or two digital images of each runner to them for free that have the sponsor’s logo unobtrusively in a bottom corner. This way there’s not a mark-up in the registration price and everyone gets an image. It seems to be a compromise that makes people happy, so if any of you work for a running- or health-related company, consider using this for advertising…

    Essentially, the commenter who said, ‘it’s theft, like it or not’, is right. What makes this different than walking out on a post-race massage without paying is that there’s no one around who sees you doing this. Overall, I feel like it’s less of a copyright/legal issue and more of an ethics issue, but that’s left up to each individual…