Statement on the decision concerning allegations of plagiarism against a 2020 Photo Contest nominee

14 April 2020

Cases raising serious questions about World Press Photo Contest nominees, like the allegations of plagiarism against Maximillian Mann for his Environment story ‘Fading Flamingos’, are difficult because they start with public accusations.

The approach of the World Press Photo Foundation is to pay close attention to allegations when they appear publicly and treat them seriously when they are presented to us in writing. Then we assume nothing until the facts have been gathered and we can start the Post-Award Review Panel process the foundation has for adjudicating these cases.

Gathering facts begins with a commitment to treat all parties to the issue fairly and equally, reaching out to them for detailed information and statements. We then undertake independent analyses and collect evidence independently wherever appropriate and possible. We want to thank everyone who was involved in this process, particularly the two photographers, Maximillian Mann and Solmaz Daryani, for responding promptly and thoroughly, especially in these challenging times, to our requests for statements as well as answers to specific questions.

In cases like this the foundation has a particular remit, which is to determine whether nominees for awards have complied with or broken the applicable 2020 World Press Photo Contest Code of Ethics and the applicable entry rules for the 2020 Photo Contest. The foundation does not govern the industry or police the profession. Our approach might offer lessons for others if they choose to follow them but we make judgements solely in relation to our own activities, contests and programs. Our judgements are based on the law and the applicable terms and conditions for the 2020 Photo Contest.

When we have gathered all relevant information, this is given to the Post-Award Review Panel to determine whether or not the nomination in question has broken the applicable terms and conditions for the 2020 Photo Contest. The Post-Award Review Panel comprises three members - Lars Boering, the managing director of the World Press Photo Foundation, Ebba Hoogenraad, lawyer (specialising in intellectual property law) and former member of the Supervisory Board of the World Press Photo Foundation, and the chair of the relevant jury, which in this case was Sabine Meyer, chair of the Environment and Nature specialized jury.

The Post-Award Review Panel met online twice in the week commencing 6 April and discussed all aspects of the case. On the allegation of plagiarism, the panel considered the issue in terms of Dutch law, which governs any disputes arising in the contest. From Dutch law it follows that clear ‘plagiarism’ arises if there is a copyright infringement where the work of one photographer is presented as the work of another photographer, something that would breach entry rules 3 and 4. That is not the situation in this case, where Mann’s story comprises photographs he made.

Under the law, neither story ideas nor the style of visual stories can be protected by copyright as the property of one individual. Only the (new and original) exact combination of visual elements in the picture itself and the execution thereof can be protected by copyright. If photographers want to make the case that images on the same story with a similar style too closely resemble their work such that it constitutes copyright infringement, there is no easy or fixed answer for determining acceptable or unacceptable resemblance. Both pictures must be compared with respect to the distinctive copyright protected elements and infringement thereof. In the end what is acceptable or unacceptable resemblance that constitutes copyright infringement can only be decided by a judge on a case-by-case basis if a photographer undertakes legal proceedings.

For the sake of diligence and given the opposing interests of this issue, the Post-Award Review Panel asked for additional opinions from two other external authorities in the Netherlands on copyright and plagiarism in photography. Including also the opinion of the two external experts, the Post Award Review Panel has come to the conclusion that, in terms of the law, there is no copyright infringement in Mann’s photographs. As a result, the Post Award Review Panel has concluded Mann’s entry has not broken either the World Press Photo Contest Code of Ethics or the 2020 Photo Contest Entry Rules, more specifically no breach of article 19 of the 2020 Photo Contest Entry Rules.

We recognise that a decision in terms of copyright, plagiarism and the contest rules, though consistent with our remit and legally correct, will not satisfy those who see the case as invoking a range of issues, including appropriation and originality. The Post-Award Review Panel discussed these issues in relation to clause 7 of the World Press Photo Contest Code of Ethics, which requires photographers to be open and transparent about the entire process through which their pictures are made, and be accountable to the foundation for their practice. The conclusion is that Mann’s entry has not contravened the World Press Photo Contest Code of Ethics.

Issues like appropriation and originality are even more complex topics worthy of on-going debate. Part of that debate will have to reflect on the fact that the Lake Urmia story has been regularly photographed over the years, with at least seventeen other Iranian and international photographers having shot pictures of places that also appear in both Daryani’s and Mann’s work. Had any or all these other photographers entered the contest, the jury would have been able to compare them directly and consider which story was the most compelling, but in this year’s contest the jury only had Mann’s entry to judge.

We want to conclude with a request for continuing constructive debate about this case and all the issues it raises. Both photographers in this case have at different times been subject to personal abuse and offensive behaviour online. This is unacceptable and must stop. Both photographers are valued members of the visual journalism community and must be treated with respect.