The pitfalls of stock image licensing

There is an old saying that a picture is worth more than a thousand words but in today’s highly connected world it does not stop there. A picture is worth more than just words; it is worth hundreds of likes, shares, re-tweets, and impressions, making the difference between an engaging post and a fail.

We will not go into depth regarding the importance of visual content, everybody is aware of it. But rather we will look into how to avoid the pitfalls of using images sourced from google and avoid “copyright trolls.”

It all begins with the concept of copyright, which has its origins tied to the invention of the printing press, but appeared as a legal stipulation in the 18th century. The legal concept was created to regulate the replication of books and control their distribution. In modern legislation, the role of copyright has slightly changed, meaning that it does not focus on the distribution of intellectual property but rather its aim is to encourage and protect the creativity of the authors.

The creation of Google Images in 2000 transformed the way we source our photographic needs, making it easier than ever to find images. In the first year, the service indexed more than 250 million images and since then has indexed more than 1 trillion images. Only by searching for the keyword “beach” you get approx. 1.850.000.000 results. Because of the massive amount of data and no specific control, license information can often get lost. Whenever you find an image that you like on Google Images and you think of using it, STOP and think who the author is and under what type of license it has been released. This thought will save you a lot of hassle later on as in the past few years the practice of “copyright trolls” has been very popular in the on-line environment.

What are “copyright trolls,” you say? They are entities that actively pursue and profit from the use of copyright enforcement litigation. The concept is very similar to the one of “patent trolls” from the tech world.

There are hundreds of cases in which design studios, bloggers, and publications have been threatened with legal action by attorneys specialized in one thing only and that is image copyright infringement. The Content Factory documented their ordeal in one of their blog posts, how the miss use of one image ended up costing $3000. What we can tell you for sure is that “I found it on the internet”, “it was an accident”, ”I removed the picture immediately” or even “I credited the source” will not make you less liable.

The amount asked in these situations is usually around $8000, but a settlement is often reached for a lower amount. The fact that damages vary so much puts the question into perspective “ How much is your picture worth?”

How much is a photo worth?

Since 2013, there have been a series of high-profile lawsuits that redefined the issue at hand. One of the companies involved in such a lawsuit was Buzzfeed. Their policy regarding the use of images has been very permissive in the sense that they considered fair payment simply crediting the author if the picture was part of an article that contained several others. This policy led to one of the biggest profile cases — in 2013 photographer Kai Eiselein suedthe company for the amount of $3.6 million because they have reprinted one of his photos without permission. The issue here has not been the reprint value of the image which was of only $50, rather that other websites published the picture without authorization as the result of the Buzzfeed’s article. Actions of content producers such as Buzzfeed redefine the question “how much is your photo worth” because virality enable repercussions to spread outside their audiences.

In another high-profile case, photographer Daniel Morel was awarded $1,2 million in damages after Agence France-Presse and Getty Images used an image of the 2010 Haiti earthquake without permission. AFP argued that because they picked up the picture from Twitter it should be considered fair use. The judge ruled that Twitter allows for posting and retweeting but not for commercial use of the photos of the photographer, this has created a strong precedent in the industry. Similar to the case of the Buzzfeed’s lawsuit, the redistribution of the picture was cited as the most substantial part of the damages.

The list can continue with several other examples, but almost the same conclusion is reached in many of the cases.

The majority of online publishers have reconsidered their editorial standards, some going to the extent of prohibiting the use of third-party images.

The fine line

Sourcing your images from Google and other non-specialized sources comes with even more delicate pitfalls. Amos Struck of Stock Photo Presspointed out one of these gray areas in his blog post. Although Google introduced in 2009 the option to filter results by “usage right”, often the license data provided is incomplete. Images “labeled for reuse with modifications” do not capture the full extent of the license. Some of them might be distributed under the Creative Commons Share-alike license which means that any reproduction needs to be offered under the same type of license. Imagine that you have created a very nice advertisement banner for your campaign. You used a very engaging Share-Alike image that allows for modifications for commercial purposes. The Share-Alike attribute binds you legally to offer your banner under the same type of license that means that your competitor would be legally allowed to use your banner. Not the ideal situation for you, right?

What is Creative Commons you say? In order to better understand the situation in Part I we will go through some of the most common free licenses and in Part II I will pick up where we left off by showcasing some of the most common paid licenses and how they are interpreted by each provider.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons are a set of licenses offered for free by the Creative Commons non-profit organization, that enable authors to communicate which rights they reserve or waive. They are the main reason for the existence of websites which offer stunning free images. The licenses have been created in 2002 to combat as Lawrence Lessing (CEO of Creative Commons) describes it a restrictive permission culture that is dominated by a handful of powerful content distributors. To better understand the impact of Creative Commons, by March 2015 Flickr alone had more than 305 million images under the CC license.

The licenses have four different attributes that can be combined.

  • “Attribution” is by far the most popular, it allows third parties to copy, distribute, display and create derivative works as long as they credit the author.
  • “Non-/commercial” attribute limits the use based on the final purpose of the image, to either commercial or non-commercial projects.
  • “No derivs” attribute prohibits the alteration of the original image and is usually used in combination with the other attributes.
  • “Share-alike” is last but not least but by far the most interesting.The attribute requires that the derivative work to be distributed under the same license as the original.

The only one type of license which does not require any special status of attribution is CC0 or Public domain dedication. By using this type of license the author waives his rights upon the artwork.

Even though, “copyright trolls” and other entities look only to profit through the use of intellectual property, it is our personal duty to respect the creative minds and their output. If we don’t do it for the sake of the authors, we should do it to support their creativity which benefits all of us.

We would love to hear your stories regarding image copyrights, leave a comment below.