Poker Photographers Charge Art Company With Stealing Copyrighted Works (Updated 9/27)

September 24, 2021
Poker Photographers Charge Art Company With Stealing Copyrighted Works (Updated 9/27)

Update: Poker Paint reached out again on Monday via Twitter to offer an apology and reassessment of its business model. That update is at the conclusion of this article.

A controversy erupted in the poker world on Friday after with several longtime poker photographers charging an art company with using photographs without permission. The company creates stylized versions to sell commercially as art pieces and NFTs.

Several photographers say the company has stolen their work without compensation. The company, Poker Paint, is based out of Washington, DC, and sells multi-colored versions of poker photos from various events. The company listed a Norm Macdonald piece for sale on the company’s website for $1,500 on Friday.

“We see art as an echo of genuine human experience – and right now we can’t hear the echo,” the company notes on the website.

After seeing their work for sale, several photographers reached out to the company on Twitter about the unauthorized usage. Several of them spoke with USPoker about the issue.

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Charges of copyright violations

Poker Paint appears to be headed by Brett Butz, a poker player and artist, according to a recent online article about the company. Most of the photographers charge that Butz never asked to use their work or sought to compensate them.

“No one from this company has contacted me to license my copyrighted photographs for a fee or seek permission to create artwork or NFTs,” longtime World Poker Tour and World Series of Poker photographer Joe Giron said.

Drew Amato has also shot for WSOP, PokerGO, and other poker entities. Like others, no one with the company contacted Amato either. He’s not opposed to the effort provided the copyright owners are compensated in some way.

“I’m all for artists getting their work out there and making money off of it,” he says. “It’s what we do. Unfortunately there is a very distinct line between creating original work, and blatantly stealing others. What they are doing is theft.”

Eric Harkins is another longtime poker photographer with works included in the Poker Paint collection. That includes a 2003 photo of Chris Moneymaker holding up some of his cash winnings.

“He’s been doing it for a while,” he says of Butz and Poker Paint. “We don’t hate his stuff, but we are frustrated with his ethics – or lack thereof.

“I worked the World Series of Poker from 2003 to 2009. And he’s selling it as his ‘own unique NFT’ or ‘original’ as he lists it. The original is always the original photograph no matter how it’s duplicated.”

Lacking permission?

Photographer Hayley Hochstetler hammered out that issue on Twitter Friday evening. The poker photographer was one of the few originally contacted about using her work.

She declined the offer, but says the company used her work anyway. Hochstetler even posted messages from Butz with her comments declining to be part of the project.

The photographer noted that the completed pieces deleted all copyright watermarks from the originals. She also detailed aspects of copyright law that may apply.

The Professional Photographers of America notes: “​​A copyright infringement occurs when someone else exercises one or more of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner without his or her permission.”

Copyright law allows for some cases of “fair use.” But this usually applies to journalistic efforts, research, and other non-commercial uses.

Hochstetler, Giron, Harkins, Amato, and other photographers who spoke with USPoker argue that Butz’s efforts don’t meet that threshold.

Company responds

USPoker reached out to Poker Paint via the two emails listed on the company’s website, but didn’t receive a response by the time of publication. However, the company did respond to critics via Twitter.

Butz and the company appear to believe the painted representations become originals. The company notes that it used photos posted on social media in at least some of the collection.

The message also noted that the company was willing to compensate photographers, but didn’t offer a method for that.

“I understand a lot of you may be upset that I saw a photo on social media and loved it enough to imitate it in a very different style,” the Poker Paint Twitter account detailed. “No, I’m not opposed to giving photographers a percentage, it’s hard work.

“I also challenge you to at least try to draw a similar style before criticizing the project I’ve worked tirelessly on for the past three years. You can find my contact information on my site if you believe your content was stolen and will be happy to figure out a much more positive approach.”

Seeking a resolution

The photographers argue Poker Paint used their work before arranging any approval or compensation arrangement. Giron wants the artwork removed and compensation for photographers affected.

“If you are truly committed to making things right to us content creators, you need to remove all content you don’t have authorization to display or sell,” Giron responded to the company.

“Then, a process has to start to make an audit and full accounting of your sales as it relates to the sold works of art from the unauthorized usages in order to compensate us.”

Hochstetler believes the company blatantly disregarded copyright law and went against her express wishes not to include her work.

He knows what he is doing,” she noted on Twitter. “I told him no and he did it anyway. Some people are saying this is a ‘grey area’ involving copyright. It’s not. He is simply stealing other photographers’ work without permission, illegally changing it, and selling it for a profit.”

Poker Paint offers apology, promises changes

After hearing from players and photographers, Butz issued an apology via the Poker Paint Twitter on Monday. He promised changes in the business model and said he entered the business with a limited knowledge of copyright law.

Several photographers reached on Twitter and complained of Butz using their work. Some said lawyers would contact the company.

“I’m a 25 year old poker player and artist, and until 48 hours ago my knowledge of copyright law was essentially non-existent,” Butz noted.

“Or, rather, it was my sincere belief based on my extremely limited understanding of copyright that there was nothing wrong with basing a hand-drawn piece of pop art off an original photograph pulled from social media or otherwise freely available on the Internet.”

Butz promised to discuss his operation with legal counsel to make sure his company is compliant with copyright law.

“In the meantime, I have pulled from my website and social media accounts all pieces that have received complaints,” the Tweet continues. “If I have overlooked anything, please let me know and I will take it down immediately.”

Here’s the entire apology Tweet.

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