Unauthorized Use Dilemma

Posted on 6/13/2019 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

A reader asked about un-vetted contributions to microstock sites. She has discovered that her work is widely copied on the Internet and says she was unaware that microstock sites allow people to post images that are not their own. She asked if I could provide a list of microstock sites that don’t follow up to determine if the person submitting images or footage really created what they are submitting. Finally, who should she chase up if there is an infringement?


A lot depends on what you consider a “Microstock” site. If you are talking about Shutterstock, iStock, AdobeStock, Dreamstime or 123RF they require that contributors sign an agreement that the images submitted were created by the contributor. Thus, they are covered legally, but there is no way to determine if what the person agreed to is really true. To some degree there is vetting.

However, once the image is licensed there is no tracking of how the image is actually used. Moreover, suppose a customer pays to use an image and then posts it their web site.

Then some user comes along, sees the image, likes it and decides to grab it and post it somewhere else so others can use it. There is not much that can be done to prevent that from happening, or to determine if a use you discover on the Internet was paid for or not.

There are other companies like EyeEm, Unsplash, Pickit, Foap and scoopshot that focus primarily on getting images from amateurs. They will accept virtually any image submitted without much of any requirement. To varying degrees, they make efforts to license uses of these images, but a big part of their appeal is simply sharing images with other users of the site. Many of the users feel that the goal of anyone who posts on the site is to show their work to as many people as possible. Thus, if they grab an image they like and post it on another site they feel they are doing something “good” to help the creator of the image accomplish his/her goal.

Often they have little concept of copyright, or the idea that the creator of the image is trying to earn some revenue from the work they did to create the image.

Then there are sites like Pinterest, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and Tumbler. Most people think that any image posted on any of these sites is free for anyone to use. Someone may see an image they like on some other website and decide to create a Pinterest Board with the image on it. They just grab the images and Pin. Someone else grabs the image on Pinterest and creates a different board. A lot of the boards are ads and most of those advertisers would be happy to get wide distribution of what they are promoting. The average person seeing an images on Pinterest has no way of knowing whether the creator of the image would like to be paid for any new use, or if they are happy to have as many people as possible use and see the image.

Another site that is one of the oldest is Flickr. It is not technically “microstock” but many of the people who post images on the site license uses of their work. On the other hand, about 200 million of the images on the site are free to use with a Creative Commons license as long as proper attribution is given to the creator.

Some people using Flickr collect images from various sources and create groups on various topics. Sometimes a lot of the photos were created by the creator of the group. But photos from other sources that the creator likes may be added with, or without the permission of the image creator.

A good example of such a Flickr group is one created by BrandonLarson94 on the theme of Baltimore. There are 2,000 images in this collection. At least 80 of them were created by professional photographers working in Baltimore who are trying to earn a living by licensing the images they produce. None of them were contacted to request permission to post their images on this site. Some of the professional images have been used by companies that would normally have paid for the use had they known how to contact the creator.

All the images have a copyright notice of BrandonLarson94 on them – even the ones he definitely didn’t create. On the individual image page there is a notice that says “all rights reserved.” There is no way to contact Larson so one suspects that he has not been getting a license fee for the use of any of the images, but it is very easy for someone to do a screen grab and use the image as they please.

Stopping Such Unauthorized Use

It is not easy to stop such unauthorized use. So far no one has been able to identify who Larson is or locate him in order to ask him to remove the images that don’t belong to him.

If you find an unauthorized use of your image you can send a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) Takedown Notice to the website (in this case Flickr) where the image is located. This is a complex and time consuming process. Once the ISP receives a properly formatted Takedown Notice they will take the image down. However, if the infringer is determined he can re-post it the next day. There is no checking.

You may be able to legally pursue the company that made an unauthorized use of your image, but if they choose to fight, it will probably cost you more to pursue the case than you will ever recover.

No one knows for sure, but one suspects that Larson was a student at the time he set up the site (6 years ago). He probably didn’t understand copyright and didn’t consider the damage the appropriation of these images might cause.

The big question is how many thousands of people are there out there like him doing the same kind of thing.

Copyright © 2019 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 www.selling-stock.com, 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: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


  • Steve Heap Posted Jun 13, 2019
    Jim - I think this is far more widespread than we think. There is an active business of taking images from sites such as Unsplash and then uploading them as the "downloaders" own image to Shutterstock and others. Alex Rotenburg has done a lot of work to try to identify these apparently bogus accounts: https://brutallyhonestmicrostock.com/2019/01/27/update-why-shutterstocks-copyright-infringement-problems-should-concern-you/


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