Toronto Star Contest Photo Controversy

A Christmas controversy at the Toronto Star

The Toronto Star recently ran a cover contest for their Christmas Eve edition, the winner of which has caused some controversy. Selected on December 20 by a pretty impressive panel of judges, Kelley Turgeon's painting of a streetcar in snow is both festive and locally inspired, and thus a fitting winner. The problem, however, is that it's a derivative work.

Plug "Toronto Streetcar Snow" into a Google image search, and it shouldn't take too long to find the photograph upon which the painting is based. Taken by Brain Labelle back in 2007 and posted on Flickr, it's painfully obvious that it serves as the source image for the painting. For her part, the artist has admitted to awareness of the photograph, saying "that was one of the pictures that I looked at, but it was also one of dozens."

That's not particularly convincing when the two works are held up side by side. Indeed, another photographer, Robert Prior, has created a rather damning animation that demonstrates just how indebted the painting really is.

Now, this sort of thing happens rather frequently, but what's rather dissatisfying is the Star's response. After the photographer started a discussion thread regarding the use of his image, the response from the community was swift and one-sided: the sentiment is that the paper should acknowledge the situation and split the prize money -- $2,500 -- between both parties. After all, the contest rules do state that any works submitted should be "wholly original."

But while the Star has noted that a controversy exists, the article in which the publication does so offers no indication as to a possible resolution of the situation. And worse still, according to comments on the Flickr thread, the paper is refusing to publish negative feedback from readers about the controversy (comments on the original article have been moderated, while the follow-up doesn't allow comments at all).

This is all rather bush league. Despite widespread misunderstanding of copyright laws in this area, one cannot use a source photograph for a painting in this manner in the absence of the author's permission. The Star should very well know this, and it's disheartening to see them point to the controversy without acknowledging their own complicity.


Lead photo by Brian Labelle animation by etherflyer (Robert Prior) on Flickr.


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