Danny Rosenberg ’17 set out one evening in April 2015 around midnight to take a long-exposure photo of the Sir Christopher Wren Building. As he sat out for three or four hours experimenting with star trails — a type of photograph that that seeks to capture the apparent motion of stars — he didn’t know that in just a few months, he would be seeing his photo everywhere.
Now, months after receiving compensation for the photo he took three years ago, he said he’s learned a lot about being a student artist at the College of William and Mary and about the risks those who make their artwork publicly available face.
“I sent them to a couple of people including my adviser, I don’t know the exact steps of who got what or how, but it was forwarded around and someone asked me if they could put [my photo] on the myWM page and it was exciting to have my photo recognized like that,” Rosenberg said. “That was the only time [the College] asked to use my photo.”
While he rode through the initial excitement of having his photo featured on one of the College’s web pages, he began to notice over the next year that the artwork was popping up in other places. He saw it on branding materials for the “For the Bold” campaign, including the fundraising effort’s website. He learned that it was featured at the lighting of the Empire State Building Sept. 29, 2016. Then, he learned that the Washington Center had a print of it hanging in an office. In all of these locations, his name was not associated with the photo.
“It got to a point where it was being used as branding and identity and to specifically make money,” Rosenberg said. “… It’s easy to forget who made that art and who it belongs to, and whether or not you need to or should give them credit. The College prides itself on the fact that we don’t lie, cheat or steal and I feel like my photo was stolen.”
Rosenberg then gathered up the information about where he had seen his photo — or where he had heard about it being displayed — and contacted the College’s office of University Advancement to ask for some form of compensation. After an initial meeting, he said he received a “final offer” — one that he had not negotiated. Over the next year, he worked to find a lawyer and research copyright law, all while struggling to maintain contact with University Advancement. However, when Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler ’88, Ph.D. ’06 put Rosenberg in contact with Vice President for University Advancement Matthew Lambert ’99, his situation took a turn.
“It was only through that route that we came to an agreement and settled everything this past fall,” Rosenberg said. “The biggest thing I’ve taken from this is that I don’t want this to be a drama, I don’t think that anyone necessarily did anything wrong, at least when this thing started. I am incredibly disappointed with how the school handled a copyright issue, which is a legal issue, and something involving a student and highlighting student work.”
Lambert and Rosenberg reached a mutual agreement on how they would move forward. Rosenberg sold the rights to the photo, as well as the rights to a similar star trail photo he took, to be used at the College’s discretion. Lambert said he decided to help Rosenberg because he, and his staff, believes and respects the right of artists.
“Danny is a very talented photographer and I am glad I had the opportunity to sit down to talk with him,” Lambert said in an email. “It is important for all artists to be informed of the steps they can take to protect their work and to be educated about industry best practices. We believe in and respect the rights of all artists and we have taken measures to ensure we secure the direct permissions required for the use of materials created by others (in this case we had received permission via his professor). His work is exceptional and we are grateful that we have been able to continue our working relationship with him, among other talented alumni photographers.”
Rosenberg said that he put in a lot of time and effort on this project to understand the situation involving his photo, and for the most part, he is happy that everything is finalized. He said this process has helped to educate his friends and other student artists, which he said has been one of his most important takeaways.
“I guess in some ways, another thing that I have done unintentionally has been to educate a number of people through my friends and also classmates that were involved in photography and art and other things like that where people could potentially use their work,” Rosenberg said. “I was able to speak to how someone might be able to handle getting credit or compensation.”
Now, Rosenberg said that he thinks all student artists should be conscious of how others might use their artwork once it is on the internet.
“I would love to see the administration continue using student art,” Rosenberg said. “I don’t want this to be a deterrent to keep them from pursuing using student artwork. They can just say, ‘Can I use your work and make sure you get appropriate credit?’”