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Are free images worth the cost?

Here’s a great 5 point reminder for marketeers on the subject of using so-called free photos –  from UK PAN reader Picture Researcher Sally Claxton.

Are free images worth the cost?

As consumers we are regularly encouraged to make sure that we know the origin of the products we buy.  Fair trade food and clothing that ensures the producers can earn a decent living, cosmetics produced without cruelty, sustainable materials that don’t cause environmental damage.  We are better informed as consumers than we have ever been before.

But do you know who took the images that appear on your website?

More importantly, if someone came to you and claimed to own the copyright, would you be in a position to prove that you had published them legitimately?

I came across this situation recently, when a friend called me for advice after receiving a letter from a photographer’s representative claiming copyright of an image on the company website, and demanding a fee for breach of copyright.   He told me he had been led to believe it was a Creative Commons image, but it was in fact copied from the photographer’s website.  

Unfortunately the image had already disappeared from the site it had been downloaded from and in the absence of any record of the license I had to advise him that they were in fact liable, even though they had been falsely told it was free to use.

The internet is full of sites that offer images as Free to Use, or Public Domain, or Creative Commons licensed.   The convenience of these sites is obvious – so quick and easy (not to mention free of charge) to download 100s or 1000s of images to feed your digital channels on a daily basis and make them more attractive and visible to customers.

It is also brimming with illegally copied content, and as a publisher of images YOU are liable if you copy and publish an image without the correct copyright clearance, so the onus is on you to be well informed about the rights you are being granted when you download these images.

Professional photographers cannot make a living if they are not paid for their work, and they are increasingly turning to dedicated organisations that trawl the web for image theft, and follow up any breaches of copyright on their behalf.  A fine for breaking copyright law is not something you want to land in your inbox, so it pays to take image licensing very seriously, even if those images are offered free of charge.

So, here are my TOP FIVE tips for avoiding fines for misuse of images in the digital world:

  1. Keep a record of every image that you use, where it came from, and the license granted.  Boring I know, but copyright operates in contractual law and meticulous record keeping will ensure you have proof of the transaction.  A printout or screenshot of the download page with the terms of license should suffice.
  2. Read the Ts & Cs  of the site you are downloading from.  Chances are they will cover themselves in the event of any dispute over rights, but if you know this in advance, you can make an informed choice as to whether or not to proceed with the download.
  3. Understand the difference between the various licenses offered.  Royalty Free does not mean the same as Free to Use, and Creative Commons licenses have a number of different levels, which govern what you can and cannot do with each individual image.  
  4. Set a budget and pay for image licensing.  An invoice is a contract once accepted by both parties, and will usually set out the terms of use of the image, which should offer some protection in the event of any dispute.  There are some very good image sites that offer a good quality and varied selection of low cost royalty free images, so it does not have to be an expensive option.
  5. Employ the services of a professional image researcher, who can help you to find creative and uniquely tailored solutions to your visual content needs with high quality images from reputable suppliers, and ensure all licenses are properly agreed and recorded.

• Sally is working on her website – you can book for your photo research gig through LinkedIn here

• View the comments box below for PAN reader reaction – add your thoughts.

1 comment

  • Thank you, Sally, for that considered piece, all good advice. As a f/l documentary photographer these past 50 years, I’ve seen some changes. One thing which needs yet to change is the UK’s general attitude to the value of photographs (or any artwork). The vast, vast majority of people and businesses see no monetary value in artworks and no recognition of the time/cost/skill in producing them. We’re often told ‘there’s no budget for photos’. There is for the rent, light & heat, staff, equipment, everything else needed for the place to run. There’s even a budget for the person who cleans the toilets. We creatives come below the toilet cleaners.

    It doesn’t help that young people go through education copying and using anything they see and come out with the view that all images should be free to use.

    The third thing which does not help is that no-one admits an error. The normal reaction of the picture user when receiving an email asking for a fee is to look around really hard to find a get-out. They often pay a lawyer far, far more to find this get-out than the fee claimed.

    I agree with Sally that we should all be more businesslike and record all details of source and the agreements. Hundreds of copies of my work are on the web marked as free to use or under a Creative Commons licence. They’re all there unlawfully and anyone who uses them would be committing an offence under copyright laws. It’s no defence in law to have believed you had the right to use an image. The only way to be sure is to ask the copyright holder which, I know, could be impractical.

    What to do when you receive such a letter asking for a fee? Take it seriously, deal with it quickly and, unless you can produce a valid written licence, consider making an early offer to settle. Showing willing can often bring a discount.

    Being a f/l photographer was always difficult. For young people these days it is almost impossible to make a living. I recently spoke to art students at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool on Protest. It was really about standing up for yourself and saying ‘No’ more often. When a commission comes in for a minimal fee and the client insists on taking the ©, say ‘No’. When a client uses your work in excess of the agreement, insist on a fee for that. If your work has been nicked and used in some way, politely but firmly insist on your fee and an agreement they will stop doing it.

    I understand that picture users want them for the lowest fee possible. But think of the longterm consequences. If there’s not enough of the ‘pie’ for the photographers and artists to survive, their services will become unavailable. That would help no-one.

    John Walmsley

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