A relative of a friend of a friend was taking photographs at a horse show recently when she was informed by a representative of event management that photography by spectators was prohibited. It apparently didn’t matter that the only rider being photographed was a relative, or that the photographs weren’t going to be sold to anyone. Instead, the issue was the official photographer’s "right" to be the only person allowed to photograph the competition.

I haven’t done any horse show photography for decades and my interest now centers on copyright and the legal—and illegal—uses of images made by someone else. Back in the day, though, paternal horse show managers out to zealously protect my ability to make money with my photography were non-existent.

To get a better idea of how much the equine photography game has changed since I last stepped into a show ring with a camera, I contacted Carien Schippers. Carien is the founder of Equine Photographers Network (EPN), a comprehensive online resource for horse photographers. She had a lot to say.

New Technology, New Problems

"Horse show photography as we know it is dying out," Carien said when I explained the reason for my call. "Amateurs are shooting at the shows and then they’re giving the photographs away. The technology and equipment has gotten so sophisticated that almost anyone can take a photograph that is technically very good. I’m not working as many horse shows as I did in the past, and some show photographers are giving up completely."

Adding to the problem created by a technologically leveled playing field shared by both professional and amateur photographers is a common perception among exhibitors that a good photograph for free is a better deal than a superior photograph that comes with a price tag. Best of all is a professional image that can be pilfered for nothing.

Not everyone thinks that way, but enough people do that unfettered access to the show ring may be the only real advantage a professional photographer has over well-equipped amateurs these days.

"A good contract between show management and a professional photographer should include enhanced access, a list of competitor names and addresses, and at least some restrictions on amateur photography at the event," Carien explained. "Some managers will stand behind the official photographer and really police photography by amateurs, but some won’t do that."

Whether a show manager actually has the legal authority to restrict photography by non-official photographers is a gray area. Restrictions on photography may be easier to enforce at an event held on private property, or at a show with controlled admission. A "no photography" policy at an event held at a public facility, on the other hand, where spectators are free to come and go at will, is more problematic. Effective enforcement at a combined training event, where thousands of spectators may wander over acres of land to watch cross country is impossible.

The Internet = Free, Right?

Another popular misconception is that anything—images or text—posted on the Internet is free for the taking. Many show photographers post proof images of their work on the Internet, either on business websites or on social media outlets such as Facebook. The exponential growth of the web has changed any number of things, but basic copyright law isn’t one of them. .

"Image theft on the Internet is rampant," Carien said. "Facebook can be a great vehicle for promoting your work, but there has to be a balance between promotion and losing business because your images are being stolen."

Some photographers try to protect their images by posting very low resolution proofs, which makes it difficult for potential buyers to judge the quality of the image, or by superimposing watermarks or copyright notices. Metadata embedded in the digital photo files also can help establish ownership of an image. The problem is that any 10-year-old kid who is computer savvy—and they all seem to be these days—can strip away most of the digital protections without breathing hard.

The bottom line—and it is a money issue for people on both sides of the fence—is this: professional photographers must do a better job of educating their clients about the basics of copyright law, and exhibitors need to understand that "borrowing" an image posted on the Internet by a show photographer without paying for it is stealing, plain and simple.

Should horse show images posted on the Internet be free for anyone who wants to use them?