Under Pressure From Angry Photog, BuzzFeed‘s Ben Smith Changes Twitter Avatar

BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith is a thief, a “jerk” and a “shill for right-wing smear merchants.” That’s according to the photographer whose picture Smith has used as his Twitter avatar for more than a year.

Yesterday Daniel Sieradski, a self-employed photographer in New York, went after Smith on Twitter. “I would really like Smith to clarify his relationship to the Washington Free Beacon, Emergency Committee for Israel and Josh Block,” Sieradski said. “He obviously works for them.” The common link is a pro-Israel cause. The Emergency Committee for Israel is a pro-Israel political group, led by The Weekly Standard‘s William Kristol. Block is president of The Israel Project, also a pro-Israel political group. And The Free Beacon was founded in part by Michael Goldfarb, a well-known pro-Israel political activist.

Smith has reported on or published reports on these groups in the past and has paid loose compliment to Goldbarb in the NYT. For those six-degrees-of-separation connections, Sieradski believes Smith is “a shill for right-wing smear merchants.”

And for that, Sieradski, a self-described “left-wing supporter of a progressive Israel,” wants Smith to stop using the photograph he took. He tweeted at Smith: “I would still also really like [him] to cease and desist from using my copyrighted photograph as his avatar without my consent.” Sieradski also linked to his personal Flickr account that contained the original photo, taken at the American Jewish Press Association 2008 Annual Conference.

“About time to change the avatar anyway,” Smith replied.

The original photograph had been altered with text placed over the top that read, “Mr. President, Ben from BuzzFeed. What are your top ten honey badger mashups?” It was edited by Reuters‘ Anthony De Rosa as a way to make fun of Smith’s 2011 move to BuzzFeed, a site largely known for its long lists about cats.

Asked if he would sue Smith if the photo was not taken down, Sieradski said no, explaining, “I just don’t want someone I think is a jerk to benefit from my creative work.”

Smith has since changed the photo. His avatar is now a near-identical recreation of Sieradski’s picture.

Regardless, Team BuzzFeed claims the law is on its side. Smith argued on Twitter that his avatar was ” transformative use,” given that some text had been laid over the top of it, creating a “meme.” Essentially, Smith believes the photo had become something entirely different, a new work of art, from its original form.

Sieradski said otherwise. “Posting a photo with a large caption overlaid onto it doesn’t necessarily constitute a meaningfully original work, as text alone may not contribute any additional cultural value,” he said. “A meme isn’t a meme simply because it has white text in 72 point Impact on it.”

He compared his “cease and desist” request to that of the band Heart asking former V.P. candidate Sarah Palin to stop using one of its songs at political rallies. He said it’s part of a larger problem of BuzzFeed “routinely ‘sampling’ other people’s creative works without compensating their creators or even simply asking permission.” Gawker covered this in a post last year titled “Remix Everything: BuzzFeed and Plagiarism Problem.”

“I don’t care all that much if someone who’s not benefiting commercially reuses my photo without asking me,” Sieradski said. “A company with a $200 million valuation, though? Eff that.”

We reached out to BuzzFeed for comment. “It was about time Ben got a new avatar,” said publicist Ashley McCollum.

As for Smith shilling for any kind of right-wing anything, it’s worth noting that Breitbart News regularly attacks him and BuzzFeed, accusing them of being in the tank for Democrats and President Obama.