Netflix Uses My VHS Cassette Images Without Permission

Update: Matter fully resolved. Case closed! Updates at the end of article.

Maybe you’re aware of Netflix, maybe you even have a subscription for their services. You might have also heard of or watched a series called Stranger Things, produced by Netflix. But did you know that Netflix have been selling a box set of Stranger Things that incorporates pictures from my website, specifically from The VHS Corner? I didn’t, until some kind netizens contacted me to tell me all about it.

The Tip-Off

I was contacted at 7.56am (UTC+11) on 5th November 2017 by the operator of discjunkietv on YouTube. He reported posting a video online about the Stranger Things Season 1 Target-exclusive Special Edition Blu-Ray Box Set and that a commenter (DVD and Film Bloke) had recognized that the images on the inner box resembling a VHS cassette are taken from my Intro – Inside the VHS Cassette & VCR page. After a quick confirmation, he decided to contact me about it.

The Proof

Thanks to the help of discjunkietv, I had good quality images of the inner box. Initially, I only knew that the top-side had been taken, but it turns out that the underside was also sourced from my website.

Note the identical dirt in the flip-open tape cover, identical moulding defect in the top-left area, identical reel positioning and reflections. The image had been altered to fit the desired aspect ratio through cloning several rows of the pattern in both top and bottom areas, with the bottom corner filled in. They have also added their own “faux” labels on top of the centre portion and right reel window.

Note the virtually identical image down to the offset of the reel-hubs in their respective apertures. Again, some modifications were made to fit the desired aspect ratio, but the images are essentially identical.

Unfortunately, I could not identify the source of the spine and side images based on the given pictures, however, it seems at least that the side may not have come from my website directly. It does bear resemblance to the Fuji AG grade cassette side which I had imaged at an oblique angle. These may not be my images.

As proof that I am the originator of the said images, here are two screenshots showing the metadata from the raw NEF from the camera.

As a double-check, a friend sent a link to images posted by Jeremy Konrad as independent verification of the images above.

At a later date, I was also informed that the upcoming 4k UHD release with different outer-cover art will also have an inner box using the same base images, as shown in this imgur gallery by rpvee.

My Reaction

Initially, I was in disbelief for two reasons. I’ve not watched Stranger Things, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. Could it be true that my work has become a part of their product and I should be so honoured to be part of it? The images I were seeing did not lie. They were my photos.

Then it turned into a feeling of betrayal. How could they, a large corporate company with day-to-day experience in handling rights-protected materials, use my material without so much as asking me for permission? How did they think they can get away with it? I’ll admit, I’m not a lawyer, but I do have a moral right to copyright over the images I take that does not require any registration. At the least, they have chosen my images because they are somehow special (e.g. well taken, high resolution), and I deserve to be compensated for it.

Further Research on How It Came About

Apparently, the idea of VHS retro-inspired packaging for Stranger Things is credited to this effort by iamsteelberg, posted to Instagram on 21st July 2016. This was quite well received and resulted in a few interviews of Steelberg, such as this one posted on Vehlinggo.

But that was not the only effort, as lsqDrunkenMaster also created one and posted it to Reddit days earlier on 17th July 2016, which was well received. Months later in August, Johny also created one himself.

It seems that the whole idea had the support of many netizens, and when it was reported that Stranger Things would be released with a “VHS treatment”, there was some uncertainty as to whether it would happen.

According to Wikipedia, the Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack was released exclusively to Target on 17th October, 2017 and its release was even covered by The Verge.

While most of the postings seem to be concerned with the outer dust jacket, the images for the inside VHS box are no-less important, completing the whole “retro look and feel” of the set. I was genuinely surprised at how nostalgic people seem to be for VHS.

Attempted Contact

At 9:08am (UTC+11) of the same day (5th November 2017), I set about trying to contact Netflix about it. Contacting Netflix is hardly an easy task as no e-mail addresses are available, so I had to resort to live-chat to try and get to someone who can help. This was a long process, as it took about 10-15 minutes for the customer service representative to find the necessary contact details.

You: I would like to contact your distribution department, as I have been made aware that the image of a VHS cassette used on the Target-exclusive Stranger Things Season 1 Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray is my image from my website (goughlui.com) and the image was used without my consent or permission.I would like to know how this came to happen, why I was not made aware of this and appropriate licensing sought prior to publication.Sincerely,Dr. Gough Lui

Shelton Netflix: Thank you Dr. Lui for letting us know about this concern , your opinion is very important for us,please, bear with me one minute so I can get you the right information about who to contact so we can get this solved for you.

You: Thank you.

Shelton Netflix: So welcome!

Shelton Netflix: Thank you so much for you time and patience, I’m still retrieving the right information for you so you can get your concern clarify. one more minute please.

You: No problems. Understood :).

Shelton Netflix: Thank you once again for your time, I did research about your concern and since we are not able to handle this issue over the chat I found the right department that can surely better assist you so you can get all the responses about this inconvenience, please address your concern to **************.

Shelton Netflix: And once again I apologize for this issues 🙁

You: Thanks for the information. In the future, it would be easier if an e-mail address of some sort could be more prominently available under your contact details so I don’t have to “bother someone” to find it for me.

You: Thanks again.

Shelton Netflix: Thank you muc for having the time to reach out to us, and will pass that feedback also. Have a great weekend

Shelton Netflix: And one more thing, if you wouldn’t mind, please stay online for a one question survey.

After being given the e-mail address for the Public Relations team, I sent off this e-mail at 9:29am (UTC+11):

Dear Netflix,

I have been made aware that your recently-released Target-exclusive Stranger Things Season 1 Blu-Ray Collector’s Edition Box features a prominent image of a VHS cassette.

[Inline Image – Same as in Proof Section Above]

It has come to my attention through a number of fans of Stranger Things that the prominent image featured is my image that I had photographed and published on my personal website, specifically on http://goughlui.com/the-vhs-corner/intro-inside-the-vhs-cassette-vcr/. As a VHS aficionado, I have posted some of the better quality images available online which are frequent targets of image theft. I was not contacted about its use, nor was any licensing of the image sought. Given the prominent copyright notice printed in the footer on each page, I assert my moral right to copyright over this image.

[Inline Image – Same as in Proof Section Above]

When compared with my image, note the reflection in both VHS reel windows, dirt in the VHS cover lid and “chip” in the patterning on the left side, all of which coincide at a level beyond just mere coincidence to indicate this image is indeed the one I had taken.

In case of dispute, I do have the original un-edited RAW and JPG files, whose metadata is displayed below:

[Inline Image – Same as in Proof Section Above]

As you are in the content production industry, the concept of copyright would not be foreign to you. I would like to know, specifically:

  • Who made the decision to use my image without permission, attribution nor contact?
  • Who approved the artwork without reviewing any rights materials?
  • How you propose to remedy this situation, as I am sure the discs themselves would see sizeable circulation for which I have not received any compensation for my efforts.

I look forward to your co-operative response.

Sincerely,

Dr. Gough Lui

As this was sent outside their regular operating hours, I didn’t expect an immediate reply, however, I did get an autoresponder at 9:50AM (UTC+11):

Thank you for your message. If this is press-related, we do our best to respond to most media requests within a few hours. Please note: we do not monitor this inbox during weekends.

If your matter is regarding customer service, please refer to help.netflix.com for alternative contact information.  We do not respond to customer service related issues through this email address.

If this is regarding a sponsorship request, someone will contact you if it’s of interest.

If you are submitting a film for consideration: unfortunately, we do not accept or review unsolicited materials or ideas. For that reason, we will not consider any materials or ideas we receive that were not specifically requested by Netflix or submitted via an aggregator or established agent through the appropriate channels.

Thank you,

Netflix PR Team

It’s clear from this reply that their system had received the e-mail. As a result, I sat and waited a few days. No reply was forthcoming. As a result, at 11:06AM (UTC+11) on 8th November, I sent the following message (including a CC to my alternate e-mail address in case replies were lost):

Dear Netflix,

I was given this contact by your customer service team as the best contact to use, but I have not heard back from you in regards to my enquiry.  Could you please acknowledge whether this enquiry is being handled, and as to the progress or whether there is a more appropriate contact.

It has since come to my attention that the images used on the other sides of the collector’s edition box are also my images which were taken without obtaining permission.

I would hope not to have to post an article on my website and go through social media channels to reach a resolution to this matter.

Sincerely,

Dr. Gough Lui

The message was successfully received on my alternate e-mail address, so the send did complete and no postmaster warnings were returned. However, it’s been over two weeks since my initial e-mail, and yet no reply has been entertained. It seems I am being ignored. As a result, I’ve had to do what I hate most – turn it into a social media “thing”.

What Happens Next?

I am hoping that by making this public posting, at least this injustice is documented, with the hope that it catches the eye of someone responsible enough to look into the matter and offer appropriate compensation. When and if that happens, the record will be updated accordingly. Image licenses can frequently run up to US$600 per image depending on use. In the case where people are not contacted beforehand, an additional penalty is considered customary.

But of course, I have no ill intentions. I have no intention to ask them to stop selling the items. In fact, I’m happy people are nostalgic about VHS. I’m not looking to milk the situation at all. I’m not threatening to get a lawyer on their case. I’m just frustrated that I had to find out from someone else in the first place. I’m frustrated that despite my images being used, I’m not getting any compensation whatsoever. I’m frustrated that I have to spend time chasing, when I could be spending time doing something else. I’m extremely frustrated that the piece of art they have produced resides on a box set which I cannot even hold in my own hands as it’s US-only. I’m half-way around the world in Australia, so did they think they could get away with it? Topping it all off, once I tried to contact them via the means they have advised me to use, I was ignored.

I’ve been unemployed for a while, on holidays for a while, making do as best as I can. I’m a one-man-band operating a personal blog that doesn’t even make AU$1/day after all the hosting and domain fees are considered.

I’m not an unreasonable person – all I ask for is:

  • an apology and an explanation of how this happened, and what you’re doing about it. Maybe there is something I don’t know? If there is, then let me know.
  • a reasonable license fee as a way to contribute to my work. This would go towards offsetting the cost of equipment and vast amount of time I’ve spent on my blog. I leave the monetary amount open to negotiation, but I’m trusting that you will at least be reasonable. You’re using my images on work that is being sold for profit.
  • a physical copy of the items in question. It’s not particularly nice to have your work used on something that you can’t even hold in your own hands.

After all, for a company that had 17’Q1 profit of $178 million, what I’m asking for is not even a rounding error.

So, how about it Netflix? You know how to reach me. You’ve already got my e-mails. But in case you’ve forgotten, there’s that Contact Me link in the sidebar you can use.

Footnotes

E-mails and live-chat have been reformatted to remove image duplication and ensure efficient use of screen-space by removing superfluous new-lines and e-mail signatures. The contents of the body text are otherwise unaltered.

Under high loading, this site is expected to go down. I only have the bare minimum shared hosting resources available. Please refer to the Internet Archive edition in case of issues – although it may well be slightly out of date.

To my readers – thanks for all your care and support. If I could ask a favour of you, it’s to share this article (if you feel it’s appropriate to do so), or to contact Netflix in some way and let them know how you feel. Should anything actually come of all of this, the article will be updated below to reflect that (as long as the server hasn’t died entirely).

Updates

Updated at 1:10pm (UTC+11) Tuesday, 28th November 2017

I thank everyone for their attention, time and support. It has been very overwhelming, and has broken a number of records in regards to page-views at my personal blog. Special thanks to PetaPixel who agreed to republish the article in its entirety this morning.

As of 12:30pm (UTC+11) while I was away from the desk, I received a reply from Netflix. The reply reads as follows:

Dr. Lui,

First, my sincerest apologies that no one has gotten back to you until now.

Your blog post was brought to my attention so I wanted to reach out and let you know that we’re currently looking into this matter with the creative agency that worked on the product design for the tapes.

Will update you as I know more. Feel free to reach out in the meantime.

Best,
Marlee

While this is not a resolution as of yet, it’s exactly what I wanted to hear – that someone is looking into the matter. I have since responded with a short message to thank them for their reply:

Dear Ms. Tart,

My sincere thanks for your reply and thanks for following up on this matter. I look forward to hearing from you as to the outcome of your investigation.

In the meantime, the blog post has been updated to reflect this recent communication as a matter of transparency.

Sincerely,

Dr. Gough Lui

Thanks again to everyone for their support, and I will keep you updated should any further developments arise.

Updated at 8:22am (UTC+11) Wednesday, 29th November 2017

I have received further follow-up from Netflix, and will be contacted by their legal team. I have supplied my phone number as requested.

E-mail received as of 6:48am (UTC+11):

Hi Gough,

Just wanted to circle back with you. I’d like to connect you with Bryce (copied) from our legal team who’d love to chat when you have a moment today so we can rectify the situation and make this right.

Please let us know if there’s a good number to reach you on.

Thank you,
Marlee

Also, a tweet sent around the same time:

Updated at 9:11am (UTC+11) Wednesday, 29th November 2017

I have received a very courteous phone call from Netflix in which we discussed the matters at hand and appropriate compensation. The matter has now been settled to my satisfaction, and pending a few bits of paperwork, I shall receive a very satisfactory licensing fee and copies of the items as noted.

They have expressed their apologies over the mistakes made by their third party agencies as well as letting the initial e-mail contact get lost within the system.

As far as I am concerned, this is the best possible outcome that could have happened. Thank you all!

Updated at 12:00pm (UTC+11) Friday, 1st December 2017

I can confirm that all the necessary paperwork has now been completed and received by Netflix, and that I shall receive the promised compensation in days, with the products to arrive within the following weeks.

Updated at 9:45am (UTC+11) Monday, 4th December 2017

I can confirm that the payment has now been received.

Updated at 5:00pm (UTC+11) Friday, 15th December 2017

This afternoon, a large cardboard box arrived by FedEx. It’s as if Christmas had come early – all I asked for was the box sets, but instead, I got a goldmine of Stranger Things merchandise as well. Thank you Netflix!

… but wait, there’s more!

I found the hand-written note especially meaningful – I guess you know what I’ll be doing over the Christmas break :). I’ll probably take a closer look at some of these items in future postings.

I knew Stranger Things was big when I heard they were renewed for a third season, but I didn’t realize they were that big to have their own Monopoly set! Wow. In fact, the items were so numerous I couldn’t actually fit them all in one shot (or indeed, in the space I had left in my room). Colour me impressed.

With this final update to this post, I’m happy to declare the matter fully resolved above and beyond my expectations. I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the co-operation of Netflix, as well as the various netizens involved. I never meant this to be as big of a thing as it had become, but in all, the outcome was positive. Thanks once again to everybody.

About lui_gough

I’m a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!

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25 Responses to Netflix Uses My VHS Cassette Images Without Permission

  1. Sleepwalker3 says:

    Dude! Don’t be silly, get onto a decent size mob like Maurice Blackburn or one of the other big legal mobs and sue their ass! I can guarantee you that if the tables were turned and you were SELLING their images as part of their work, then Netflix wouldn’t think twice about dragging you into court and clearing you out including the shirt off your back.

    This is a mega $ company and you SHOULD be hitting them with legal action for at least $10k, it’s your work, you deserve it. Don’t feel like you are ‘cheating’ by taking legal action, you’re not, you would be getting what is rightfully yours. No doubt at all that they would settle rather than drag it through the courts, especially as you have a pretty clear case.

    • lui_gough says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      While in an ideal world, I would agree with your sentiment, justice is often for the rich and powerful. I am ever optimistic that a resolution can be reached without involving lawyers. If anything, I’d have to say some people are just too litigious, and some things can be solved without needing to incur extra time and financial investments from both sides. In practice, employing legal representation will just mean that a lawyer walks off with a good chunk of money either way.

      I’m also willing to give them some benefit-of-the-doubt. I don’t know what the story is from their side. They may have been legitimately been caught up in this because someone else had stolen my images and collected licensing for it. As a result, I don’t think there’s any need to be too hasty, but I’d have to say that their silence is (to some degree) telling. I hope that changes once they see the whole story from my side, and they know their fans may have seen it too.

      After all, I’d have to say that it is still an honour to have been (originally unknowingly) a part of the product, and I’m not looking to spoil anyone’s nostalgia (or Christmas) over it.

      – Gough

  2. nesdon says:

    I spent most of my career working in the motion picture business, and while I tend to fall a bit harder on the sharing/remix side of the digital copyright argument, believe me, Netflix and all the big content creators and distributors are nearly hysterical in their falling on the other. They promote a constant litany about the billions of dollars they are losing to digital piracy (which given their profits, seems unsupportable), but more importantly, what’s good for the goose must be good for the gander.

    The hypocrisy of their aggressive enforcement of their own copyrights, while being less than careful in their own shops is actually pretty egregious. My take would be that they should face a punitive damage penalty large enough to be a significant disincentive to this sort of theft. You may want to donate some of the money if you feel badly about being so hard nosed, but it really should be a point of principle that these big guys should not be allowed to profit of little folk like you, especially given the generous resource you provide in this blog.

    It would have been pretty easy for them to have dug up a VHS cassette and photographed it themselves, to not do that for this sort of commercial project is lazy and inexcusable. I support Sleepwalker, go after them! They will settle once they hear from a lawyer, but absent a lawyer, which are involved in every deal in Hollywood, your letters won’t even make it past the circular file in the mail room.

    • lui_gough says:

      Thanks for your comment and advice.

      I agree that copyright is a minefield – at times it’s too restrictive, at times it can be unclear, and local/regional variations of the rules really muddle things up, as does poorly worded license agreements. That being said, at its most basic level, I think the intention is clear that it is a mechanism for an author of a work to preserve their rights over their work and allow it to be exploited at the will of the author with appropriate compensation where necessary. I do also acknowledge many benefits from say Creative Commons style licensing, although it is not without issue. Recently, some stock music artists were rather outraged to find their music associated with extremest propaganda amongst other unsavoury content. So it is a delicate balance between freedoms and restrictions.

      A number have commented in some way as to the “triviality” of the image itself. Of course they could have done it themselves – I don’t dispute this fact one bit. It’s the fact that they didn’t choose to that makes me annoyed. However, the fact that they chose my images, above those of others, attests that the images have qualities which make them especially suited to their use – for example, high resolution, adequate lighting, decent alignment, etc. Maybe if they hadn’t chosen mine, someone else’s may well have been taken as I couldn’t identify the spine, flap or edge image sources conclusively. But had they asked beforehand, and given me the details, I’m sure we would have come to an agreement which wouldn’t need them to get out a photographer and a VHS cassette. As a big company, they must have had a budget for the box artwork – where did that all go?

      In the past, 3M was caught not licensing an image and instead “recreating” the whole idea behind the image because it was cheaper (https://consumerist.com/2008/09/16/3m-steals-viral-image-idea-to-avoid-licensing-it/), which is more grey. As I said, I’m not greedy by any means. But the whole idea that they didn’t even feel like they needed to tell me … that’s really frustrating. Maybe they were hoping the “generic” quality of a VHS cassette would be enough that nobody would notice – but someone did.

      Despite all of the expectations of larger companies being aggressive about enforcement, Netflix has shown a more humourous side to it all – http://www.adweek.com/creativity/netflix-sent-the-best-cease-and-desist-letter-to-this-unauthorized-stranger-things-bar/#/

      At this stage, I’m going to monitor the situation and see how it pans out. Legal action is costly in many ways and after all, I have a life to live as well. At least the record shall reflect what has happened.

      – Gough

      • Mark B. says:

        Well, my personal opinion is that you should sue Netflix.
        They are actively pushing DRM, which is evil, for example.
        By suing them you can give these issues publicity (attracting public attention).

        I am not a lawyer, again – this is only my opinion.

  3. Macka says:

    Perhaps you can contact and find some U.S. law firms willing to take your case Pro Bono or take a percentage from the damages that Netflix will surely be paying for this open and shut case.

  4. Justin L. says:

    Have you already contacted the Netflix copyright team?

    I found https://help.netflix.com/en/node/24851 after a quick Google search.

    • lui_gough says:

      Thanks for that link. It seems more targeted at films and getting things taken down – not quite what I’m after. However, I’m sure someone there would have heard … now if only they would reply.

      – Gough

  5. Mingjai says:

    You need to address your letter to David Hyman, general counsel of Netflix (http://members.calbar.ca.gov/fal/Member/Detail/183380). I have a feeling his office might take it a little more seriously.

    David Hyman
    NETFLIX
    100 Winchester Circle
    Los Gatos, CA 95032
    (408) 540-3782
    [email protected]

    At this point, you should consider send Mr. Hyman and Netflix a cease and desist with an invitation for licensing discussions covering ongoing use of your photo. The letter you sent before is fine, but I would leave out the parts about finding out who made the decision/approved the artwork as they really are irrelevant. And rather than asking how they propose to remedy the situation, simply ask them to stop using the photo in connection with their media sales and invite them to open a channel with you to discuss reasonable licensing terms for previous use as well as potentially ongoing use.

    Your letter doesn’t have to be overly formal or aggressive–Netflix themselves received plaudits for its own cease and desist: http://www.adweek.com/creativity/netflix-sent-the-best-cease-and-desist-letter-to-this-unauthorized-stranger-things-bar/

    Be frank in your email that you aren’t represented by counsel and have no imminent plans to litigate, but would rather solve the issue amicably.

  6. nickdhorvath says:

    Have you tried an Executive Email Carpet Bomb? I’ve found them to be effective when normal customer service doesn’t get the job done. Netflix email pattern is {first initial}{last name}@netflix.com (source: https://hunter.io/companies/netflix.com). If you’re unfamiliar with an EECB address the email to the CEO’s guessed email address from the pattern then CC several relevant other officers. Names come from the investor page: https://ir.netflix.com/management.cfm

  7. Iian says:

    Maybe I’m missing something, but did you design the VHS cassette tape? What rights do you have over it that Netflix should pay you?

    • Yes you are missing something. They used his copyrighted photograph of the VHS tape without permission or compensation.

      • Paul Grace says:

        We only have Mr. Lui’s argument so far though. There are billions of VHS tapes produced. I wonder if it turns out that he’s wrong and this all was too much noise for nothing.

        • Sleepwalker3 says:

          There are billions of VHS tapes, but Mr Lui has already pointed out numerous points that are pretty solid proof that it is indeed his image and not just another that looks like it. This is not just 1 point of proof, it’s numerous points that together are just way beyond coincidence.

  8. Chris Sherlock says:

    I called them. I’m a paying customer of Netflix and they have a very good in-app support line. I’m also a fellow Sydney-spider. I called them at about 11:15am and pointed them to the HN article. That’s a pretty remarkable turnaround!

  9. Patrick Byers says:

    You should file a proper copyright complaint form. They may respond more quickly that way.

    You can find it here: https://help.netflix.com/en/node/24851

    and the form is here: https://secure.netflix.com/us/pages/corporate/tos/TOU_CopyrightClaimsForm_EnUS_Final.pdf

    and email the form to [email protected]

    Best of luck!

  10. Jdubdoubleu says:

    Hope you got a million dollars!

  11. Kari-Lyn says:

    You mean Wednesday the 29th, right?

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