The Dilemma When Chasing Unauthorized Uses

Posted on 4/23/2015 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

In order to earn significant money from licensing stock images it is almost mandatory to make the images available through more than one large stock image distributor. But having images with multiple distributors also makes it almost impossible to determine if there has been an infringement.

Using PicScout, Tineye, or even Google or Bing image searches, it is easy enough to determine if an image has been used on the Internet. But, it is often almost impossible to determine if the image was legally licensed. If the image creator has never received any payment from anyone for a particular image use then that use may have been unauthorized. But, if the image was available through more than one distributor the creator has no idea where, or how the user got the image.

If the image is available on a microstock site then the creator is notified immediately whenever there is a use, but is not given the name of the user. If the image was obtained from a traditional RM or RF site it may be months before the usage is reported to the creator. Even then the creator only knows that a sale was made, not who the end user was.

Suppose the creator has placed the image exclusively with a single distributor. Doesn’t that solve the problem? In most cases no, because in all likelihood the “exclusive” distributor will have placed that image with a number of sub-agents around the world. If a sub-agent made the sale it may be months before the primary agent is notified and normally the primary agent is not told the name of the end purchaser.

Exclusive agreements often allow the creator to also make direct sales to customers. Without checking with the creator the distributor has no way of knowing if the creator might have licensed the image directly.

Even when you know the names of all the individuals or organizations that have licensed use of an image -- and the user in question is someone different -- that doesn’t mean the use is unauthorized. In many cases an advertising agency or graphic design firm is the licensee, but they have licensed the use on behalf of a client and the name of that client is often not supplied to the image distributor or creator, yet the image will probably have been found on the client’s site.  

Is Direct Selling The Answer?

Rarely are individuals able to make significant sales through personal web sites because it is so hard to make a significant number of potential image buyers aware that the personal site exists. Most customers looking for images want to go to sites that have a large collection of images, on a whole range of topics, from many different creators.

As a result identifying a use is only a very small part of the process of determining whether the use was an infringement and, if so, collecting for that use. The time involved, on the part of many people in the supply chain, to determine if proper payment was made for the use is usually not worth the trouble.

In addition, a high percentage of the uses found by distributors may have been legally licensed through another source. These “other sources” are often very reluctant to spend time searching their records at the request of another distributor. Regardless of what they find, they will not be compensated in any way for their effort.

Finally, asking good customers to take time to search their records in order to prove that they licensed an image legally tends to be something they don’t enjoy even when they did everything by the book.

Much as we would all like to be compensated for every use of our images, there is a point where it becomes counter productive to pursue infringements, particularly for minor uses.

Copyright © 2015 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:  


  • Irina Terentyeva Posted Apr 24, 2015
    It depends. Sometimes it is necessary to make a complaint if the image has image watermark, or as an image source is specified Google.

  • Irina Terentyeva Posted Apr 24, 2015
    I even say more. More than half of the companies to which we submitted claims of unlicensed using our images have become our clients. They just did not know that they have to buy images.

  • Uri Lavi Posted Apr 27, 2015
    The identification isn't as easy as it described in the article, however chasing the unauthorized use is definitely a challenging task and not only from the sales history perspective.

    You have to have a complete understanding of the actual usages, applicable laws and the right collection methods.

    That's why PicScout End to End (EtE) service, as one stop shopping that allows identification AND collection of the infringement fees is very successful.

    It is also effective when the sales history is somewhat incomplete or missing as our experience shows that around 80% of the found content is unauthorized.

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