When Dr. Steve Denenberg of Omaha realized that plastic surgeons elsewhere were stealing before-and-after photos of his patients from his website, he was incensed.
Steve does face-lifts, eyelid surgery and other facial rejuvenation, but more than half his operations are rhinoplasty — nose jobs. And if he weren't a peace-loving guy, he might have wanted to punch the thieves right in the proboscis.
“If I were a cartoon character,” he said, “I'd have had steam coming out of my ears.”
Other surgeons around the world, he says, were passing off his photos as their own work to prospective clients.
Steve explained the situation to his father, attorney Norman Denenberg. For the past decade, they have tried to stop the unauthorized use of the photos. The doc said he has seen his pictures on websites from “India, Brazil, Israel, France, Tunisia, you name it.”
On behalf of Steve, Norm has filed copyright-infringement lawsuits in federal court in Omaha. They have won settlements of more than $300,000, but Steve says most of that has paid for attorney fees — not much, he said, when spread over 10-plus years.
The main goal, he said, is to stop the larceny of intellectual property.
“Just because you see something on the Internet,” he said, “doesn't mean you can snatch it and use it on your website.”
Denenberg started his website in 1996, early in the Internet age, and believes he was the first surgeon to post before-and-after photos.
More than 10 years ago, he received a call from an English woman who said a plastic surgeon in London had printed out Denenberg's photos and placed them in a binder in his office. She recognized them — as plain as the nose on her face — because she had just seen them on the Denenberg website, FacialSurgery.com.
Mostly from patients, Steve learned of others illegally using his photos. He couldn't believe how brazen they were and how they wouldn't think the public would eventually find out.
“There was one from Damascus,” he said, “that was trying to get more rhinoplasty business by showing cute little blonde girls from north-central Iowa with upturned noses.”
Some surgeons said they didn't realize they were doing anything wrong. A California doctor apologized profusely and said he was horrified that a Web consultant had snatched the photos from the Denenberg website.
It was later learned that although he removed them from his website, that surgeon was still using them in a binder for patients who came to his office.
A 1973 graduate of Omaha Central, Denenberg graduated from Harvard University, earned his M.D. at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and did his residency at the Stanford University Medical Center.
He and his wife, Tippi, a yoga instructor and veterinarian, have five children ages 10 and under. The oldest, Danny, is performing in “Les Miserables” at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
Steve's parents, Norm and Eunice, years ago owned the Upstairs Dinner Theater in downtown Omaha. “Eunie” was a close friend of the late Susan T. Buffett, first wife of Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Through a Berkshire connection, Steve explained his tale to Fortune writer Carol Loomis, who has written a book about Buffett. Another writer for the magazine, David A. Kaplan, came to Omaha and spent days this summer with Denenberg and his family.
The resulting article appears in the edition that hit newsstands this week, though it went online late last week.
The writer playfully wrote that Steve and his dad kept their “noses to the grindstone” to stop the pilfering, that Eunie was so upset that she got “her nose out of joint” over it and that some offenders ended up “paying through the nose.”
Steve, 58, has performed more than 1,000 nose jobs, about a quarter for men, and many other facial surgeries. Most patients are in their 20s and 30s.
People apparently wonder, he said, whether he is always looking at noses and thinking how to fix them.
“I can be at a party chatting with two people, and one will walk away,” he said. “The other will say, 'What do you think of her nose?' I can honestly say I didn't see or notice her nose.”
Recalling those moments, he made a startling statement last week that he said could be professionally suicidal for a plastic surgeon.
“The older I get,” he said, “the less I think people need this stuff.”
He said he is all for it if patients truly want it and if he believes he can help but that he has actually talked people out of rhinoplasty — which carries a total price tag of about $10,000.
“I'm not against cosmetic surgery,” he said. “But when people ask, 'Do I need this?' I never say yes. I always say nobody needs this. It's whether you want it and would appreciate the kind of change I can realistically give you.”
The theft of intellectual property is a serious problem, not just in his profession but almost universally. Though Steve and his dad are finding fewer instances of photographs being snatched off his website, the fight isn't over.
“It does seem to be happening less,” he said. “But we recently found someone else using a picture of mine, and we started the legal process again. I don't understand why this doesn't stop.”
Steve Denenberg is a nice guy, but he has taken a hard-nosed stance against Internet theft and people who thumb their noses at the law.
And he wants people to know that just because a surgeon displays before-and-after photos on his website or in his office, it doesn't mean they are his — or that the surgeon is an expert at facial surgery, especially complicated rhinoplasty.
“If the nose doesn't turn out well,” Steve said, “it's not like a bad haircut that grows out. The patient may sit in front of a mirror and cry for the next two years.”