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How to use stock images safely


Creative Commons panda taking photograph by cheryldecarteret_Flickr

A picture's worth a thousand words pounds 

If you've ever used stock image sites, you're probably aware that navigating their terms and conditions is a minefield.

We've already talked about certain stock image sites sending pushy letters, demanding images are removed and a large fine paid.

But what's worse is that even if you're careful about dotting Is and crossing Ts, buying the right image licence doesn't necessarily protect you. You can still find a stiffly worded letter through your door.

Here's how to use stock images safely.

Take stock

It doesn't take much poking around to find people who've spent time and money getting what they thought were properly licensed images, only to get a 'cease and desist' letter soon after.

One blogger was contacted directly by a photographer and asked to remove one of his images from a blog piece. The blogger was understandably confused – he'd bought it from a fairly well-known stock photo site.

He replied to the photographer, including the invoice proving he'd paid for the image, expecting that to be the end of it. Not so: it transpired that the stock photo site had illegally uploaded the photographer's work, without permission, and ignored the photographer's requests to remove it.

And this sort of thing isn't unusual. Another blogger was contacted by a stock image site demanding a hefty fine for using their image without a licence. She was confused because she'd found the image on Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.

She should've been free to use the image as she pleased. What had actually happened was that someone had uploaded a stock image to Flickr's Creative Commons section, without actually owning it.

Curiouser and curiouser

Staying on the right side of image licensing isn't easy. It doesn't help that stock image sites' small-print sections tend to confuse, not clarify.

We know this because we've seen it first-hand. We're revamping our website and have been looking around for good-quality images for it.

As we've searched, we've noticed – on more than one occasion – the same image being sold by two or more different stock photo sites (including the super-litigious Getty), often with a vast price difference.

This got us thinking. How are we, the bemused customer, supposed to know who owns the image rights? Do they both own it?

The last thing we want is to buy the cheaper image, only to get a letter from the other site claiming we'd used their image, unlicensed. We decided to investigate.

Double trouble 

We asked two stock image sites what happens when the same image is being sold by multiple photo sites. Reassuringly, they gave us pretty similar answers.

A photographer or contributor is free to upload their work to as many stock image sites as they like. So, both sites are legitimately allowed to sell the same image if that's what the image owner (usually the photographer) wants.

So we then asked if it's possible for someone to buy an image off one stock site and upload it to another site, claiming it as theirs. The problem being that if an unknowing customer bought the image off the second site, they still wouldn't actually hold the right licence to use it.

We were pleased to hear from both sites that this couldn't happen. They always check the person uploading the image actually owns the rights to it.

But ...

... and it's a big but, there's nothing to stop a stock image provider claiming you've used their image without the right licence if you buy it from a different provider.

There are certainly examples of the more uppity image sites chasing innocent bloggers who've bought the same image from a different, yet entirely reputable, source.

As long as you can prove you've bought a properly licensed version of the image, you've got nothing to worry about. Really, that's the only way to keep safe.

However, you do need to make sure you're buying the right sort of licence when you're doing your image sourcing, otherwise you might as well not bother.

Confused? Here are the most common types of image licences, and what they actually mean:

  • Royalty free images: once you've bought these, you can use them multiple times in different projects or publications without incurring extra costs (you don't have to pay 'royalties'). The image is only licensed to you, so you can't sell it or give it to someone else to use.
  • Rights managed images: these images have some restrictions on how they can be used. For example, there may be limitations on size, placement, the time period it's licensed for, and the type of product or publication it can be used in. The price of the image may depend on how you intend to use it.
  • Editorial: some 'rights managed' images are only available for use in editorial content. That means that you can use them in blogs or other types of journalism, but not in adverts or web design.
  • Releases: if you are using the images for commercial purposes (anything that's not editorial) you need to check if the image requires certain releases. If there are people in the image, you need a model release. This is an agreement that the models consented to be photographed, and have their image used publicly. Similarly, if the image contains someone's property, such as a house or a pet, you need a property release. This confirms the owner has consented to their property being photographed and used commercially.

We're not trying to scare anyone away from using stock image sites. They can be a great way to source visual content for your blog or website. And if you've got the right licence, you shouldn't have anything to worry about.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have professional indemnity insurance just in case an image-based claim does crop up.

If you have a question about image licensing, or unhappy letters from image providers, feel free to get in touch.

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