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The cover of National Geographic that used Barrett Lyon’s image without permission

Apparently, and like many corporate behemoths, they throw crumbs at you, the artist, and insist they were not aware and had no reason to believe that the image they stole was yours and not an image by another individual. I mean, why call them liars in this day and age of the internet, social media, and Google! In the eyes of most appropriators, like National Geographic, finding an image online is tantamount to finding a dollar bill on prostitute row.

National Geographic used artist Barrett Lyon’s internet image (opte.org) on the cover of its bookazine, 100 Scientific Discoveries that Changed the World, and in the book, The Big Idea, without Lyon’s permission or respecting the Creative Commons license that allows it to be used free of charge for non-commercial purposes.

I have to wonder why, instead of paying their lawyers to answer cease-and-desist letters with aggressive and false allegations that they will win the mother-of-all copyright battles, they don’t instead pay their lawyers to do a bit of due diligence work? Is it a cost-benefit-analysis question? Perhaps. I mean, why not take the risk that the artist will never find out, and hell, if the artist does find out, what’s the likelihood that they will have registered their copyrighted artwork with the US Copyright Office? What’s the likelihood that the aggrieved artist will have access to a blog such as this one, to the NY Times, or the Huffington Post?

From the looks of it the artist, Barrett Lyon, is not backing off and is instead looking forward to fighting the magazine that brought us nudie pictures of Amazon women and “Oriental” landscapes. Lyon writes:

At this point, I think I am going to push my legal options … Not just for me, but for the rights of all the people they have ripped off.

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Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento

Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento is an artist, writer and arts lawyer interested in the relationship between art and law. He currently teaches contemporary art & law at Fordham Law School. You may follow his quips on art & law on twitter at

5 replies on “What Happens When National Geographic Steals Your Art?”

  1. Good for him. As an Artist I am sick and tired of everyone thinking that my time and materials are free. I too have seen my Artwork used without my permission. Every week I get request to “donate” some of my Art for some charitable cause. Get real people. This is how I make my living. Do you give your work time away?

  2. National Geographic has a reputation for crucifying anyone who dare uses one of their photographs. They should just pony up, pay up, and apologize for their screwup. Barret Lyon has every right to defend his original art. Go for it!

  3. Playing devil’s advocate here … is the NGS a commercial venture or a non-profit ? If it is a non-profit (they appear to be a geographic society that sponsors exploration and research) then their use of the photograph may indeed be non-commercial, and thus respect the Creative Commons license.

      1. The magazine is a fund-raising tool for the NGS; originally it was used to publicize the society’s achievements, and in the old days (til the 70s or so) the magazine was a free perk to anyone who joined the society.
        Now that the magazine is sold to non-members, this may indeed change things, or perhaps not: while the magazine is still a fund-raising tool for NGS, the society itself is not set up for profit: no shareholders, no dividends … It will take a battalion of lawyers to figure this out.

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