where to draw the line?

not long ago, i received a flickr mail, inviting me to submit some of my minifigure photos to a photo competition. initially, i was flattered. after all, who doesn’t love that feeling of belonging that accompanies being invited over to play? plus, it meant that the person inviting me had noticed some of my photos (even tho’ they’ve been few and far between of late) and that’s good, right? so, i found myself purring like a happy kitten.

and then i clicked on over to the provided link and read the competition rules. it seems that what was actually going on was that these guys were sourcing new, original content that hadn’t been shared anywhere for their book. a book which they expect to profit from. should my photo be chosen for inclusion, i’ll get a copy of their book. if i’m one of ten lucky “winners,” i’ll get a gift certificate. oh joy. meanwhile, they sell thousands of copies of their book, which is made infinitely better by the creativity of these competition “winners,” and they make all the cash.

i don’t think this is all that unusual within the legography community and perhaps within the art community at large. even the little town where i live has a sculpture association that convinces artists from all over denmark to put up their works in our town, positing it as the largest open sculpture gallery in denmark. as far as i can see, they do nothing to actually get any of the works sold, aside from having a little (and i do mean little) sign at their base with the price on them and those of us who live there get to enjoy a whole lot of awesome art that we’d otherwise not have access to.

granted, this is slightly different from that, in that i’m sure these guys will be doing all they can to make sure they sell loads of copies of their book. it’s just that the profits will be going to them and not to the contributing artists who help make their book look awesome. i’m by no means saying that they aren’t putting a lot of work into the book themselves. it’s more that i’m wondering if a free copy and the hope of a gift certificate are really enough compensation for their collaborators?

so, where do we draw the line? we are, after all, sharing our work here on #stuckinplastic and not expecting compensation for it. but what are the ethics of this practice? and how do we know when to be flattered and participate and when to stand up and say, “wait a minute, something’s not cool about this?”

i’m honestly not really sure what i think. i do freely share my photos online on sites like flickr, instagram, twitter, facebook, g+ and on my own blog and i’ve always felt like if you’re willing to put them online, you have to be willing to lose control of them, which can include not being properly credited/compensated for your work. but sometimes it also means that your talents are discovered and you get work or sales out of the fact that you shared. and, the fact is that if i hadn’t shared them online in the first place, i’d never have met a rather large group of people who are very good friends today. and my life is immeasurably richer for having these people in my life.

that said, i don’t think i’ll be entering this particular “competition.”

~ julochka

what do you guys think? is this ethical? normal? perfectly ok? or a bit suspect?



  1. I got this too and it didn’t seem quite right to me either, although plenty of people seemed to be commenting on it and engaging with it.

    Oddly, I’m happy enough for people to use my photos for free online if they ask (with credit) but the idea of it being used in a published book, that has more immediate financal rewards for the authors, feels wrong! In this case, I wonder how consistent the book will be if all the photos come from different sources! Not sure how it will work and how cohesive the produced work will be in these circumstances.

    • I think a lot of people got that mail. I didn’t join their forum, so I haven’t seen the discussion about it there. And of course, they’re not the only ones editing books in this fashion, so I don’t even mean to point to them as bad guys. I just think it’s an interesting question to ponder as photographers with a little LEGO addiction. 🙂 I imagine where we draw the line will be very personal for each of us, but we should also remember that it has an effect on the whole community when some of us give away our work for free in this manner.

    • I think there are already books after this pattern. They definitely are a nice read. Still I do prefer a book from a single artist (or a community of people who know each other) like “Small scenes from a big galaxy”.

  2. Hmmmm..not sure my English is good enough to explain my thoughts about this specific topic in a proper way.
    Even though I may just be a tiny birthday cake candle among those brightly shining dazzling star lights in this toyphotography community I wouldn´t have joined this “competition” you mentioned.
    Collecting others´ works (art, craft, effort, ideas) and selling them for one´s own enrichment is a thing I don´t like at all (which explains why I´m where I am). I guess these days there are far too many people on earth than original tasks are provided. If everyone was a craftsman there would be too much work no one needs. So people had to find other ways of making a living. Here merchants and traders entered the scene. If it wasn´t for them we couldn´t enjoy goods from distant countries, exotic or helpful. But why do these folks make more money than those who produced the goods in the first place?
    Beats me. And I don´t think anyone will ever be able to really explain this to me. So instead of crying over spilled milk and the lack of a sales talent in myself I like to focus on those who are smarter and do a lot of it themselves (no way I´m giving any names here because I´ve never met them in person and so can only suppose they´re really in charge of what´s going on and what´s not).
    Maybe that´s the reason why I´ll never be a famous artist but
    I´m fine with that.

    • Stefan, I, like you, am definitely a tiny birthday cake candle among the stars of this legography community. but, I think that that’s exactly what the people behind this “contest” are counting on…flattering us little people into providing them with awesome images for their book, so they can sell loads of copies. That makes me pretty uncomfortable and it feels a bit unethical to me.

  3. This is a difficult line to draw. And I think it’s even harder if you look more closely on the condition that come with services as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram because we give up more rights then we think of, we let the services us our work with in there services.

  4. We have talked several times at SiP about taking back control of our work from Big Inc (at least I have). I am very aware that we give away a certain amount of our rights to our images when we post to SM. At the very least we are providing content to these big corporations that keep people coming back to their platforms where they can sell advertising and make money off of us. It is a very depressing thought. Like Julie says this latest “contest” of free work for a book someone else will profit from. Simply check out the titles of No Starch Press to see several other examples. While I don’t know for sure if the content creators were compensated, my instinct says they weren’t.

    While we all support Vesa and his book, I think we can say this is an anomaly and will probably not be repeated in any time soon. Vesa had the right work at the right time. Whether a book showcasing a different individuals toy photography or a even small collective, would work, is doubtful. I am sure we could all sell a lovely book to our friends and family, but would any major publisher take a chance on us? Probably not.

    My biggest concern about this latest foyer into publishing work for free is the quality. I always believe you get what you pay for. So if this book doesn’t do well, or the work is modest in quality, will we all be judged by it? So many questions, so few answers.

    Like Stefan, I am sitting this one out and frankly I could have written his response just as easily. I will never understand why some artists make it big and others languish. At this point in my career it simply comes down to luck and hutzpah (for the lack of a better word). I will go back into my corner and quietly (and most enjoyably) play with my toys. Because frankly, that is about as good as it gets.


    ps – thanks for another great conversation!

    • i don’t know whether i consider this one to be “Big, Inc.” as I don’t know the publisher involved, but the guys behind it don’t appear to be in that category to me. It is, however, equally troubling and I think that if we’re going to start to “fight” it, this is where we need to draw the line (we don’t, after all, really want to stop sharing our stuff on Instagram, which is, after all, owned by the ultimate Big Inc.)

  5. I didn’t get an invite. Should I be insulted? 🙂 But I heard about the contest through another source. I’ll admit that at first I was interested to submit one or two of my minifig photos to see what happened but then I read the rules more closely. The photos are supposed to be new photos – not already published on Flickr. This means I would have to spend hours taking a photo specifically for the book, editing the photo and then submitting it with no guarantee of any income, even though the book would probably make money? That setup makes me uncomfortable. I wish they could offer some sort of payment to all the photos they use for the book. Then I would feel like it’s worth the effort.

    • Lynn, I don’t think you should feel the least bit insulted…they must have taken members of certain groups and weren’t necessarily pinpointing particular people’s photos. the mail said something about, “i don’t know your resumé” which felt a bit insulting…so don’t feel bad about not being invited.

      the setup makes me uncomfortable as well, there’s something decidedly not cool about it.

  6. Surely an interesting topic but also difficult to talk about, so I guess my comment is going to be long. I did not receive the e-mail invitation but, if it’s the contest I think, I’ve learned about it a few days/weeks ago through a LEGO-related website. Since then I’ve been thinking about whether or not I’ll submit a few pictures.

    I am quite used that others are making money with my work without me receiving financial compensation for it. First my professional occupation is scientific research and basically scientific publication is about people making money out of the work of researchers being mostly paid by public money.

    Next all my photos, toy related or not, are shared under a Creative Commons license. I think computers and Internet changed the ability of humanity to share knowledge and culture and made copyright obsolete. While I think CC licenses are not enough to replace copyright, I still haven’t found anything better. Because I use this type of licenses, I suspect that a few of my photos have been used to avoid having to pay for something of equivalent quality. Yesterday I even got the confirmation that a few of them have been used in a calendar sold by a non-profit without citing me as the authors of these pictures (which is the only real constraint to reuse them).

    Despite the fact that I am more or less turning a blind eye on these practices violating the open license I put on my photography, it does not mean I don’t think there is a problem behind this. On the contrary I really think this a big issue but I doubt it will be solved in a near future. Moreover I don’t really know what I or we can do about it. We could decide to ignore/boycott/fight those that are profiting from our free work but on the other hand I’m not sure that we can really ignore the ones who are profiting the most of it (i.e. Facebook and Google), at least not at our small scale.

    If I’m taking photos of toys, it’s for myself. If I’m sharing them freely on the web it’s because I like to look at others photo and I want to give the largest amount of people this opportunity. These are the two reasons behind my photography. Despite this hobby has become a money pit and getting some money back with it would be really helpful, I don’t think it’s feasible right now. Even if there were people ready to pay for my photos, spending (a lot of) time to sell photography is not something I want to do. I have the feeling it would be too much time consuming and something I’m not going to enjoy doing.

    On this blog there is a lot of discussions about pushing toy photography outside of the community. I might be wrong but when I try to take something to have a bigger picture, I have the impression that this kind of initiative is a step in that direction. Surely we the photographers are not going to directly get anything out of it but I’d personally love to see affordable books with toy photography. Overall I think it would help us to get more visibility.

    In the end what will make me take a decision about submitting to this “contest” is whether or not I’ll still be able to share my pictures under Creative Commons licenses. By submitting photos for that book contest I think that in the worst case I won’t really lose anything because anyway I am probably not going to make money out of it anytime soon. In the best case my work will be seen by others which is in accordance with my current goals.

    • Thank you for this thoughtful and in-depth comment, Reiterlied. I actually think that I feel about it all very much as you do. I also have CC licenses on my photos on Flickr (except those which are licensed to Getty or sold for another use). And while I don’t know if any of mine are in print anywhere, I have found them on a Lithuanian tourism website and other such places. I feel I get much more out of sharing them than I would out of keeping them to myself. Like you, it’s not my primary source of income and I think that if it became that, all of the fun would go out of it.

      You’re absolutely right that we are all doing things which others (and especially companies) benefit from. When I come up with a fun idea for a marketing campaign at work, the company I work for benefits from that idea much more than I do. I guess that’s part of the understanding we have around the work we do.

      This feels a bit different to me – this is more like peers (or maybe they’re not peers, actually, as the person who emailed me had no photos on Flickr, they had just created a profile for emailing, as far as I could see) trying to get someone else to do their work for them and then take all the credit. And I guess that’s the part that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  7. I wrote an essay for an anthology for which I was not compensated, but I knew it came from an ethical small press, and the proceeds from the collection did not go to its editor but to an organization that helps teens in crisis. I would not respond to an invitation to submit work for free to people I didn’t know but who would profit from my work while I wouldn’t see a penny. If it’s a viable publication and they’re serious about what they’re doing, they can pay contributors.

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