Toyota Shamefully “Borrows” Image from Local Denver Photographer

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From Guest Editor Josh Peters. Imagine being a freelance photographer. Making a living off of your craft and enjoying what you do every day. You work on your portfolio and upload some of your images online to try and get noticed. Then one day you wake up and find out that Toyota has used one of your images in their new 4Runner campaign. That’s every freelancers dream, right? The big time. Well, what if you didn’t know that Toyota had used your images? What if you only found out because a friend told you your image was being used?

This happened on Tuesday to Colorado-based freelance photographer Michael Calanan, who found out about his photo’s major debut on Toyota’s site from a friend. How’s that for a kick in the pants? You don’t even get to tell your parents about one of your images being part of a major corporation’s campaign because you didn’t know it was. This should have been a proud moment for Michael Calanan and his parents.

He should have been able to call them up and tell them about his debut for a global brand. How dare Toyota take that moment away from any parent who has gritted their teeth and said “that’s wonderful son” and put some atrocity on the fridge, and now finally gets to see their progeny’s work in a major campaign. They can’t have that proud moment if they don’t know it exists.

Now if you click on the image of the two grizzly bears it takes you to Michael’s Flickr page, so in truth they didn’t technically “steal” it. However, they never asked Michael if they could use his “All Rights Reserved” image in their campaign either. What if Michael hates Toyota (which I don’t know if he does) and wants nothing to do with them? Shouldn’t he have a say in how his artwork is used?

It’s not like he made it difficult either. He put a contact email address right below the image. All the person at Toyota would have had to do is take 30 seconds to email him saying “Hi, I’m SoAndSo with Toyota and we’d like to use your grizzly image on our new site and link it back to you with full credit. Please let me know if that would be alright.”

Toyota seems to have adopted the mentality of “I can use it because it’s on the Internet,” which isn’t entirely the case as the State of Utah recently found out. Instead of rallying the artist behind them, they just angered him, his friends, and probably some extent of his family. 60 seconds of courtesy could have made all the difference in the world. 60 seconds could have excited the artist, who would have told his friends and family, who would have in turn told some of their friends, and so on.

This chain reaction could have brought many eyes to see it in a positive light and applaud what Toyota was doing. Instead, it caused a rant on Twitter by Calanan, that caused his friends to rant on Twitter (me being one of them), which led to more ranting which then led to Toyota making apologies and taking down the images on one of their sites but not the other, and this none too flattering article being written about them. Seems like the 60 seconds would have been worth it.

The point I want to make here isn’t how things can’t stay hidden for long in social media and the Internet, in general. The Jaguar Post-It story has gotten national coverage, been covered to death and beautifully illustrates that point. The point is Responsibility.

Toyota probably didn’t create this in-house and so used another company to create the site, but that’s not what we the customer and we the Internet user see. We don’t see “created by so and so firm” we see TOYOTA! Now more than ever is the time to ask questions, to make sure everything was done ethically and with permission. After all, at the end of the day, it’s their name and their reputation that gets associated with the product and how the campaign gets handled, just like it’s Calanan’s (and the other photographer’s) name and reputation that get associated with their images and how they’re used.

As of writing this, Toyota has taken down the images from only one of their sites and has not contacted the artists like they said they would. Is that an admission of guilt? Are they conferring with their lawyers and pulling out their hair because they thought for sure they understood this Internet stuff? Who knows, but what I can tell you is this. Just because it’s on the Internet, doesn’t mean it’s free.

If you’re not sure how all this works, then ask someone who does. “Borrowing” images for commercial use is not okay, especially when it’s how that person makes a living. We all need to eat, but the food tastes better when we do it with ethics, responsibility, and don’t “borrow” images from talented Denver photographers.

Josh Peters is a freelance social media consultant who has been deeply involved in the research and application of social media for several years and is the co-author of TwittFace. He blogs at Shuaism and pretty much lives on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.


  1. Michael Calanan November 5, 2009

    Thank you for bringing the

    Thank you for bringing the story to light, I’ll post updates if folks are interested.

  2. Daniel Krieger November 5, 2009

    Toyota should buy Michael

    Toyota should buy Michael Calhoon a new car, now that would be some good PR for them instead.

  3. jamie November 5, 2009

    So, next time you go to use

    So, next time you go to use an image ask yourself, “do I own the rights to this?”

    If not, you are STEALING. Just like a shop lifter, or Wall Street Executive. Furthermore, justice requires that you pay an indemnity if you’re found out after the fact. I vote for big indemnity.

    Give ‘em hell Michael.

  4. Ed November 5, 2009

    Corporate theft from

    Corporate theft from freelance entrepreneurs is a serious issue and deserved a much more serious article.

    I felt the questions peppered throughout the article (“What if Michael hates Toyota (which I don’t know if he does) and wants nothing to do with them? Shouldn’t he have a say in how his artwork is used?”) were a distraction. In the end. Toyota’s ad company stole from Mr. Calanan and that’s what needed to be reported.

  5. fontho November 5, 2009

    You mean to tell me that

    You mean to tell me that whoever developed this site for Toyota couldn’t go to iStock and get a grizzly bear image for like $12?!
    No offense to the shooter, but it’s not like that image is the most unbelievable shot of grizzlies ever seen. Certainly not to the point that these idiots steal it. Lesson learned for Michael- put a copyright watermark on your images just like the stock houses do.

  6. Josh Peters November 5, 2009

    I did some looking around and

    I did some looking around and it appears as though Toyota’s ad agency in this endeavor is Saatchi & Saatchi.

  7. Josh Peters November 5, 2009

    Fontho, the reason the image

    Fontho, the reason the image was on there is because Toyota wanted to include an element of social media to their site. That’s why the same column includes tweets & blog posts about the outdoors. The problem is that they went about it the wrong way.

    If they had simply asked the artists for their permission to use the images and link back to the artist it would have been a different scenario. The artists who said yes would have been supporting the site instead of getting pissed at it.

    The idea was good, the execution was very poor.

  8. calanan November 5, 2009

    If I may interject with a bit

    If I may interject with a bit of humor, I’d be the first to admit this isn’t a stunning or unbelievable shot of grizzlies but rather a snapshot by a terrified photog-hiker who happened to round a corner and find himself sharing the trail with these beasts.

    Had I not previously enjoyed my ‘morning constitutional’ I’d have been hiking the rest of that afternoon in severely soiled undergarments.

    That is all.

  9. Debra J. Ferchen November 5, 2009

    Well, it’s Michael Calanan’s

    Well, it’s Michael Calanan’s mom checking in from Niagara Falls, NY. Great article and thanks for getting right on this! This situation reeks of corporate theft. Did Saatchi & Saatchi not know enough to contact the photographer(s)? By the way, I never had to post any “atocities” on our refrigerator from either Michael or his sister, Dana.

    Looking forward to follow-up story.

  10. Josh Peters November 5, 2009

    Debra, Thanks for the comment

    Debra, Thanks for the comment and especially in the case of Michael who put his email under the image should they have known to contact him. As for the “atrocities” I was just adding some levity to the piece based on the time honored tradition of placing a child’s crayon scribblings on the fridge. I know my parents still humor me in my attempts at art today and if it weren’t for the fridge I’d have no where for my art to hang 🙂

  11. John Vance November 5, 2009

    We negotiated with our local

    We negotiated with our local Toyota dealer for two days to purchase a new 2009 Toyota Camry and were scheduled for delivery Saturday. (The paperwork was signed and financing was approved through my bank… I had to deliver the check and get the car.) Bottom Line: I read this article and cancelled the order. While one lost sale of a 2009 Camry isn’t going to change the world, it is one fork in the eye of a company that is willing to crush the little guy. The little guy buys their cars. Not this one.

  12. Debra J. Ferchen November 5, 2009

    @ Josh. No offense taken! We

    @ Josh. No offense taken! We do have a great sense of humor in our family.

    @ John V. Good for you! Fork in the eye works for me. Thanks for supporting the big “little guy” Michael Calanan.

  13. The Denver Egotist November 5, 2009

    Damn, John Vance. You

    Damn, John Vance. You serious?

  14. Droid November 6, 2009

    Why is everyone blaming

    Why is everyone blaming Toyota for this? They didn’t make the ad. The fault lies with Saatchi & Saatchi, from their Production Artist to their Account Manager.

  15. calanan November 6, 2009

    An interesting side note, the

    An interesting side note, the fellow who tipped me off to my photo being used (Flickr user jakerome) just found a press release touting Toyota’s new “Beyond Cars” user-submitted minisite campaign. Checking the site’s Terms of Service one finds that the legalese appears to give Toyota a rights grab.

    See my latest blog entry for more details

  16. Leslie November 6, 2009

    How is this different from

    How is this different from what Shepard Fairey did with the AP photo?

  17. shrederland November 6, 2009

    we all know that you steal

    we all know that you steal images from google not flckr

  18. Jack Mullen November 6, 2009

    Nice photo Mike, too bad

    Nice photo Mike, too bad Toyota got greedy. I like the comment that this ought to be worth a new car for the photographer. Maybe a Prius. It would be a great PR move, cost little in $ and time, keep the bottom feeding lawyers and media types out, and make a “grizzly” error into a green and just win-win solution. The American market would love to see justice and will be watching.

  19. Randall Erkelens November 6, 2009

    This just happened to one of

    This just happened to one of the bands on our label. Desperate Housewives “borrowed” a song from us to use on air.. we got an email asking if we’re the copyright holder of the song just two days before the episode aired. Meaning that they had already finalized their production. We answered ‘yes” and asked what the next steps were to arrange a contract to use the song.. from what I’ve read in the industry.. producers feel they’re giving local bands a break.. and a favor to use their music.. on the chance the public likes it.. it becomes an overnight hit… this is a double edge sword.. you piss off the producer.. they don’t use your work… and lose the chance for fame.. you ask for money.. same thing.. this mentality is the same thing that happened in the Toyota scene I’m sure.. I wonder did the clicks per day increase since they put that up? Prolly now.. Did we notice a spike in sales for the song after airing.. no… not really… I would have preferred a $1000 royalty…..


  20. Josh Peters November 6, 2009

    @John Vance wow, good job.

    @John Vance wow, good job.

  21. Randall November 9, 2009

    It was theft. Plain and

    It was theft. Plain and simple. Anyone that had to throw-in a comment about the quality of the shot. Lame. That has nothing to do with any of this. Two issues remain.. what to do… and do we remain silent since stuff like this could be considered a feather in the cap… a commercial usage for the photographer? People steal from Flickr all the time. A lot of people use their creative commons agreement there. There are no watermarks. Perhaps, said photographer should submit to iStock, Getty, etc. Ohh.. one more thought… are people less likely to steal from a photographer’s website portfolio than they are from Flickr? Same photos on both.

  22. Josh Oakhurst November 9, 2009

    -5 internet points for the

    -5 internet points for the author.

    This is not theft.

    The Toyota site in question clearly labels the area “content from the outside.” There are thousands of websites built to scrape info/pix/and video from around the web. These are scripts set to pull in content based on certain characteristics—some by big companies, some by dudes in their bedrooms. Deleted tweets. Drunken Facebook messages. Pictures of cats.

    This website features a Toyota logo and the photog thinks he’s falsely been jilted out of a payday?

    This is not commercial usage. It’s a commercial site that says “hey, other people around the web are interested in this same content—go look at their stuff.”

    I thought that’s what social media was all about? Broheim got a link and proper attributes.

    Dude with the song on Desperate Housewives has a way different issue.

  23. Nathaniel Hornblower November 10, 2009

    I saw that“Content from the

    I saw that“Content from the Outside” disclaimer. Could mean outdoors.

    The “website” is an ad. Advertising is the most commercial use out there. Toyota needed to get permission before using any copyrighted image in their ad campaign. Would be no different if the “website” was printed out and mailed to prospective car buyers.

  24. Ted Walker November 10, 2009

    Toyota’s unathorized use of a

    Toyota’s unathorized use of a copyrighted image is theft. There are some good copyright attorneys in town—contact one and have them send a letter to Toyota with an invoice. Copyright is established at the moment of creation and everyone in the industry knows this. If you let it go, it happens again, to more people than you.

  25. Josh Oakhurst November 12, 2009

    I don’t know guys, I know

    I don’t know guys, I know it’s a thorny issue, but what they’ve done on that right hand part of the site is create a branded search engine. They’re indexing content from multiple sources and pointing back to the source. It’s got a logo on it—is that theft?

    Google does this, and they have made (the successful in court) claim they are offering up a service to the public good by doing so. Toyota’s site probably cannot make that claim in court, and still, Google has been sued by p0rn makers to not index their content, and Google was forced to blocked some sites from being indexed just the same.

    I understand the impetus is “It’s and Advertisement, it’s theft!” that some of you have, but you’re wrong about it being such a “cut-and-dry” case. This is only a matter for the courts to DEBATE, there is no obvious RIGHT answer like some of you claim.

    Interactive “copyright” issue as on display here is not that concise—tis a grey legal area that is up to interpretation. You might feel like it is “Wrong”, but at worst, it’s technically “iffy.”

    If you’re batting in the big leagues, it helps to know the difference.

  26. mark November 15, 2009

    He should have sent an

    He should have sent an invoice directly to Toyota for usage license immediately when he found out they were using his images without permission. Their lawyers would have advised them to immediately pay the bill or else they would be in court.

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