Innocent Infringement

Posted on 9/6/2004 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



September 6, 2004

How many uses are being made of online imagery without proper payment?

The other day I was working at my church. As I went to the printer I noticed that someone had printed out a Brand X picture of a butterfly and another sheet indicating that the picture was from

This is a very large church with paid staff of over 100. It makes significant use of still and video imagery for power point presentations, brochures, posters and other uses. The church is also very copyright sensitive and the senior staff regularly emphasizes that clearances should be obtained before using copyrighted material. The church produces a lot of audio tapes, from which it generates revenue, so it has a vested interest in protecting copyright.

Curious about the budget for stock photography, I asked, "Who's using FotoSearch images?"

One secretary piped up, "I found it on the Internet and am using it in the PowerPoint presentation I'm preparing for tomorrow."

Jim - "What did you pay for it?"

Secretary 1 - (shocked expression) - "I didn't know I had to pay for it. I got it off the Internet."

Jim - "Some images on the Internet are free, but not all of them. FotoSearch is a company that licenses rights to the images it shows on the Internet. You need to pay to use their images."

Secretary 1 - "I thought if I found it on the Internet it was free and OK to use it."

Secretary 2 - "Some images have watermarks on them and you can't use those without paying, but if it doesn't have a watermark isn't it alright to use it?"

(By now they are recognizing that I have some knowledge on the subject and are asking for advice.)

I explained that they must look carefully to determine if the images are copyrighted and then look for the "licensing" terms. I had to agree that it isn't always easy to find that information and determine if the image they have found on the Internet has to be licensed or not.

Secretary 1 had gone on Google and entered "pictures of butterflies". From there she started clicking on various links with little understanding that some links are to things that are free and others are to things where you need to pay. She found some pictures, didn't take the time to carefully read the information around the picture, picked the one she wanted to use, right clicked and she had a file that was sufficient for her PowerPoint presentation. In this case, after our conversation, she ended up not using the Brand X picture because no image budget was authorized for this project. She went back to Google to find an image on a site where there was nothing that indicated that the image was copyrighted, or needed to be licensed. These two secretaries will probably not make the same mistake again.

When senior staff eventually sees the presentations they assume that all clearances have been obtained, given the general policies they have put in place, but that may not be the case. Meanwhile, the worker bees have been given instructions to do a job, but are very confused about what is legal and what isn't when it comes to copyright, because there is no consistency in where they have to go to get that answer.

How big a problem is it that one church uses a few images illegally in PowerPoint presentations? I don't think this is just one isolated situation, but rather evidence of a huge problem that goes on daily in corporations and associations around the world. In many cases it is not because people are purposely stealing, it is because they do not have a clear understanding of what they can and cannot do legally. Most people want to do the right thing, but often have trouble figuring out what that is.

If people make use of the images on the Internet there are now ways to track that usage and alert people when they have made an infringing use. But if they use an image in a PowerPoint presentation or in a small special interest publication there is no way to track such usage.

Certainly, it is going to be very difficult to stop people who steal on purpose. But, I believe there are a large number of people who would like to do the right thing - the legal thing - if it were just a little easier to figure out when something if free and when they need to pay.

One Solution

What about putting a small button at the corner of each image file that remains a part of the image file? If anyone clicks that button while hooked to the Internet, it takes them to a site that tells them what they have to do to license rights to use that image. If there are restrictions on usage clicking the button takes them to a site that tells them what the restrictions are in detail. If there is no button then there are no restrictions on usage. This button doesn't need to be on the final delivery file, just the thumbnail and preview.

If there were a simple, universal system like this, then it might be possible to begin to educate the universe of users as to how to determine what is legal. The button would become a standard. Each person who puts an image on the Internet would be able to easily insert such a button in the corner of his or her picture and have the option of specifying a URL address where the button will take any person who clicks it. At that location the restrictions and pricing requirements could be outlined in as much detail as necessary.

The fact that we have a few large companies controlling the distribution of a high percentage of stock images actually makes it easier to introduce such a system than it might have been a few years ago. The system must be universal and very easy to use. Technology wise, I don't think it should be that difficult to develop. The only major hurdle as I see it is that there needs to be some type of encryption so unauthorized sellers could not change the site to which the button is directing the user. The only person who could change the site address is someone specifically authorized by the image creator (i.e. and agent).

But, for such a proposal to have any chance of success some major image users must get behind the ideas and develop and promote it. They need to make it very simple for image producers to use. It also needs to be very inexpensive or free for every images creator to use so everyone will want to take advantage of the opportunity. And what's in it for these major image sellers? Well, they are the ones who have the most to lose. The more sales they are making and the easier it is to find their images on the Internet, the more dollars they are losing from innocent unauthorized use. I challenge them to get to work to solve the problem.

Copyright © 2004 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


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