Five Questions with Fine Art Photographer Ted VanCleave

Fine Art Photographer Ted VanCleave

This week we would like you to meet one of our Individual Creator Members, Fine Art Photographer Ted VanCleave

1. What was the inspiration behind becoming a fine art photographer? What do you enjoy most about the creative process?
I shoot a lot of images of architecture and nature. It’s what I find most interesting. I love going on photo safaris, as I call them. I’ll hit the road in my truck and travel to interesting places or hop on my bicycle with my trusty assistant, Zippy (my dog). He sits in a basket on the back of the bike and my camera is in a basket on the front. Then we go explore visually interesting places. It’s a great excuse for seeing things and visiting places I might not otherwise see.

2. When did you first become aware of copyright and why?
I created my first web site Totally Absurd Inventions ( in 1997. It features 300 hilarious inventions that were actually issued patents by the US Patent & Trademark Office. It became extremely popular, generating significant traffic. Then in the early 2000’s, I discovered that someone had copied my entire website, translated into Russian, and published it on a Russian web domain targeting a Russian audience. And the sad realization came over me that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
Fast forward to around 2006 and some of my fine art photos that I had posted on my website were being used by businesses without a license or permission, mostly in the US. During that time, I would stumble across the uses and then try to collect money from them myself or in many cases just try to get them to remove the images or add a credit and link back to my site. But the process was incredibly frustrating, time consuming and largely fruitless.

3. Have you experienced copyright infringement and if so how has it affected you personally and financially?
My initial response to finding my images infringed is anger, then frustration. I wasn’t licensing my images much at that time, but with all of the infringements I was finding, there was clearly demand for them. Companies were using them to promote their businesses and products, while media companies were publishing them with alongside stories they were printing. Yet no one was paying me or even taking the time to find out who I was in order to provide proper credit. So early on I didn’t feel a loss of income as much as frustration at the ability of businesses to get away with it. But that for sure changed later as I began to grow my fine art print and licensing business. Then the infringements became a direct hit on my business and income.

4. What do you do when you encounter someone stealing something you’ve invested your intellect, time and money into?
One thing I learned early in the process is that I wasn’t alone. Image theft was rampant and commercial businesses were stealing and using images in large numbers without a license or permission. By the end of the 2000’s there was a lot of discussion and fear in our industry about the “Orphan Works” bill that was coming before the legislators that said in essence, if we can’t find the owner of an image, it’s okay to use without fear of a copyright infringement claim as long as we did a reasonable search for the copyright holder. But nowhere was there clear language defining what a reasonable search was. This was really frightening and many photographer organizations pushed back hard against this legislation.
So I had an idea. What if we could find infringements for photographers using powerful image recognition technology? This could help photographers find infringements so they could go after them for a license. I discussed my ideas with my good friend Joe Naylor, who had a strong technology and business background, and he liked the idea. We spent about six months researching and developing our plan and in 2008 we launched to help photographers protect their images and copyrights.

5. What is your best piece of advice that you would give other creators in your field about copyright and how to protect themselves?
The #1 thing I tell every photographer, and frankly every artist, is that you have to register your work with the US Copyright Office. That is the only way to truly protect your rights in the works and your business and livelihood overall. If your work is registered timely, you have the all-important ability to pursue statutory damages of up to $150,000 per infringement plus attorney fees. This is critical leverage for your side when pursuing a claim. And most US copyright attorneys won’t take on a claim if the images aren’t registered timely, as in the vast majority of cases the actually damages would not be great enough to cover their costs of litigating.
I also emphasize the importance of registration to my friends and peers overseas. Most of them hadn’t even contemplated registering their photos with the US Copyright Office. Why would they? But it affords them the same protections and opportunity for advanced damages as it does for any US citizen when pursuing an infringement claim here in the US.
Then I also encourage everyone to consider adding a watermark to their images. And recently I relaunched my website on a new website building platform called PhotoDeck ( that has disabled the ability to right click and save an image. I know you can still screen shot the images, but at least it discourages some people and they might move on to images that are easier to steal.

Ted VanCleave
Fine Art Photographer
Miami, FL

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