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Beware misuse of stock images

8 March 2018

Are you sure you’re using copyright-free images for your social media and website?

A number of agents have recently reported receiving copyright infringement notices from stock photography sites detailing the misuse of specified images on their website, social media and in online advertising. The letters of demand also called for the payment of fines of up to $1000 per image.

While it may sound like a scam, unfortunately in these cases it wasn’t. Copyright infringement is an offence – just like stealing a car or shoplifting from a supermarket. 

But, these days, people don’t see it that way because it’s all too easy and ‘innocent’ to right-click on an image online and hit ‘save-as’. Think of it this way: that photo was taken by someone who might be making their living from licensing their work.

So what can you do to avoid potential problems?

1. Do an audit

Now’s the time to clean house.

Identify every image you’ve used across all your digital platforms and in print collateral, and work out whether you actually have written permission and clearance from all relevant copyright owners to use them, identify all uses you would like to make of the material and check you have permission for those uses. If you don’t, remove them immediately and find a replacement image that you have permission to use for the relevant purpose.

2. Use royalty free images

If you do choose to use stock images, only use royalty free stock images.

Royalty free has nothing to do with whether you paid money for them or not. Instead, a royalty-free image licence is one where you have permission to use the image (whether you pay money or through some other arrangement), and you are then able to use the image as many times as you want without having to pay royalties for each use. Some stock images are not royalty free – so even if you pay for them, you may only have limited use of them.

And keep in mind that different image libraries will have different terms of use. Always read the licence before using an image, understand all licensing rights, find out what is required in terms of attribution and if they can be used commercially, and ensure that all copyright agreements are in writing.

3. Build your own image library

In the end, it may be easier – and cheaper – to start actively building your own private stock photo collection.

Have a think about the themes and concepts that could make for good ‘stock’ imagery to have on hand for your regular social media posts, website updates and in print collateral. Once you have your list, talk to a professional photographer about creating your own private stock photo collection.

Just because something is on the internet, doesn’t mean it’s free. Research by Getty Images – one of the largest stock photography sites in the world – found that over 85 per cent of photos used online are subject to copyright infringement.

Make sure every member of your team is aware about the images they can and can’t use, and the potential ramifications of using images without the correct permissions. And consider nominating someone in your team to be the go-to person to check and approve the use of all images in your marketing and online activities.

Don’t get caught out. Not paying for a $10 image could end up costing you a substantial amount in penalties or fines, or even damages if the copyright owner takes you to court. Now that’s an expensive lesson in copyright laws!