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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The bigger the company, the bigger the blunder

Toyota stumbled into a mess with a launch of their new 4-Runner website. (I imagine this site link will soon be broken, since they're going to need to rectify the situation). To set the mood of wildlife for their SUV brand, they looked to photographers on Flickr to provide photography for the microsite. They found several great photographs which were used, unfortunately they never asked the photographers for permission.

Michael Calanan (a talented photographer & friend) posted his concern on Twitter the evening of Tuesday, November 3. The conversation towards @Toyota must have got their attention, as they promptly tweeted Wednesday morning to the photographers involved.

This is why your company needs an experienced marketer on staff. Real marketing directors have an understanding of intellectual property laws. Photographs, fonts, illustrations, and other design elements found online are not free for you to use, especially for commercial purposes. Further, marketing personnel are meant to understand consumers. First and foremost, the responsibility of marketing is to know what motivates people, and how they will react. Not knowing that professional photographers would certainly notice the increased traffic on their Flickr pages, and be upset about someone using their work without contacting them is a fatal mistake. If they fail to understand this, do they understand what Toyota customers actually want from their vehicle? There may not be a correlation, but it begs to be asked.

If I was to guess, I would say it was not malicious intent of Toyota to steal these photographer's work, but was a lack of intellectual property understanding. That does not excuse what they have done. Ignorance of the law is not a valid defense. Whether you are a multi-billion dollar company, or a small boutique, you need to respect the property rights of others. If you are unsure of what you can or cannot do, ask for help from a real expert.


  1. Thanks for bringing attention to this issue.

    "If I was to guess, I would say it was not malicious intent of Toyota to steal these photographer's work, but was a lack of intellectual property understanding."

    I agree and hope they will take this to heart and learn more about IP laws - I admit I need to as well.

    Follow this case on my blog.


    - mike

  2. Im sure the photographers who's work was used will be less offended as soon as they are compensated nicely by toyota. ;-) But this reinforces the point, always keep tabs on your images. Protect them!

  3. Scott Bourne has a set procedure for billing for usage like this. He obviously has the resources to pursue and has a system in place, but it is something that generates considerable income annually for his company.

  4. Update

    There are apparently two separate 4Runner sites, the Flickr photos have only been removed from not from

  5. A photo from my stream was used as well.

    I wrote a blog post detailing it with a screenshot:

    Ohh What a Feeling

  6. Kinda sad that really big companies like this still don't have an understanding of copyright laws.

  7. If you can't take them to court over producing a pug ugly piece of automotive throwback that does 17mpg while pretending to be in tune with nature, then at least they should get what's coming to them over this - theft, pure and simple. No defence.

  8. I can't believe that you think this was done in innocence. Toyota are not to blame, it's the guys who put together the site for them.

  9. Andyptak,
    Innocence, no. Ignorance, yes. There are so many marketing "professionals" who are completely ignorant to intellectual property laws.
    As I wrote, ignorance is not a defense. The design agency who created it is guilty of theft, as is Toyota who approved the project.

  10. unless your photos are registered before the infringement, you really have no case. no lawyer would even pick it up.

  11. Whiterabbitpress,
    That is the prevailing opinion, but is not true. Most intellectual property suits are not that black & white. Registration is just one form of defense, it is not the end-all/be-all of IP.
    Most IP cases I have worked on revolved around "clearly registered marks and properties" but there are so many factors to make a decision of who is the rightful owner of IP.