Steps To Solving The Infringement Problem

Posted on 10/18/2012 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

If we want to reduce copyright infringements we must make it easier for people to be honest.

I was recently directed to a blog post by Ryan M. Healy who complained about Getty’s aggressive tactics in attempting to collect damages for an image he unlawfully used on his website. Healy makes his living as a copywriter and writes a popular blog about copywriting, advertising, and business growth. He should understand the importance of being compensated for creative work. Nevertheless, he referred to Getty’s “extortion tactics” and directed readers to the “ExtortionLetterInfo” website of attorney Oscar Michelen and Matthew Chan. Michelen and Chan advise clients on how to avoid paying when they make an unauthorized use.

I was also directed to a very cogent response to Healy’s blog post by photographer Alistair Cotton. He defends Getty’s actions and explains why they were justified.

But, reasoned education is not working. On the whole aggressive pursuit of infringements is not slowing the number of infringements. Yes in a small number of cases going after the infringer does produce some compensation -- after a great deal of effort is expended. If these are the only recourses photographers and agencies have when someone makes an unauthorized use of their work it appears that the effort to reduce infringement is, in the long run, a losing battle.

Why So Much Infringement?

While photographers are legally and morally within their rights to go after infringers, they need to also recognize that when someone sees an image on the Internet (or in print) it is not only easy to grab and used the image, it is usually extremely difficult, if not impossible, to determine who took the image and where to go to determine if it is OK to use it for a particular purpose.

Many people think that if they “link back” to the original site where they found the image that makes using it OK. Part of the problem, of course, is that in well over 90% of the cases the place they found the image is not the photographer’s site, but a site that either licensed a specific use of  the image or grabbed it from somewhere else. In either case the photographer is not being identified or credited and certainly not compensated.

Professional photographers who want to license rights to use their images must also recognize that a huge percentage of images that can be found on the internet may be freely used without any compensation whatsoever to the creator. Consequently, it is hard for users to know which images can be used for free and which ones can’t. As just one example there are over 200,000 million images available with Creative Commons (CC) licenses. All that’s required to legally use a CC images is to credit the photographers. There are millions more that are totally free to use in any way. Therefore, it is easy to understand why many users – both professional and non-professional -- are confused about what they can and cannot do when they find an image they want to use.

So What’s The Solution?

First, I believe most people want to be honest – they want to obey the rules. If that’s wrong, if everyone is a thief at heart and their first instinct is to always break the law, rather than obey it, provided they think they can get away with it, then my solution won’t work.

The stock photo industry needs to develop a very simple way for anyone to go online and quickly determine if any image they find needs to be licensed before use. If licensing is required then contact information of the licensor must be instantly available. There are no technological barriers to overcome in developing such a database. The necessary technology is available today. The only thing required is for all stakeholders to agree that such a course would be beneficial.

Here are three steps the industry needs to take.

Step 1Build a universal database of ”image fingerprints,” managed by a non-profit organization, where consumers can quickly determine if an  image needs to be licensed and where to go to legally license its use.

It would be important for the database to be comprehensive and contain fingerprints of virtually all images where the creator or copyright owner wants to control or limit uses. However, given the technological advances of the last few years, this is not as hard as it sounds.
  • The vast majority of professional creators already have their images in a few major databases such as PACAsearch (,  PicturEngine (, PhotoShelter ( and Flickr ( Creators would simply have to authorize these distributor to fingerprint their images and insert the fingerprints into the universial database.
  • Distributors should be able to easily supply the name of the creator and contact information for every image in their collections.
  • There would be some cost in managing such a database and in the fingerprint process, but given the huge number of contributors involved the cost would likely be minimal for each contributor.
  • While huge in terms of the number of images represented, total storage would not be that large because each fingerprint only takes up a few bites of data. It would not be necessary to store a file of the actual image as a link to the existing site would make that image available. Connected to the fingerprint would be a pointer to the database with the full sized image.
  • Attached to each fingerprint would be the creator’s name, contact information, link to the full sized image and a code to indicate any free uses that are allowed.
  • There should be a system that allows authorized service providers to create image fingerprints for individuals and upload them to the main database. In this way anyone could participate. A fee would be charged for this service.

Step 2Build a site where customers can upload any image they want to use to determine if it needs to be licensed. If licensing is necessary then contact information for someone who can legally authorize use of the image should be provided.

The site will work like Google Images ( or ( except that instead of searching the entire Internet for the image it will only search a single database. Thus, it should be very fast and comprehensive.
  • Each unique “fingerprint” should only appear once in the database. Thus, in those cases where multiple distributors are authorized to license a particular image, a system should be established where the prime contact is the creator. The creator can then designate someone else to handle the licensing.
  • A search would result in one of two outcomes:
    • 1 - It will deliver a thumbnail of the image requested along with contact information and a usage code.
      2 - If no image is returned (and there is a comprehensive collection of image in the database) the customer may assume that the creator is not concerned with controlling use of the image. However, if the customer then decides to use the image he/she must recognize that they might be pursued for copyright infringement in the future.
Step 3 Build a system of use codes that are delivered along with the contact information. This would let the customer know immediately if certain free uses are authorized.
  • Creative Commons images would be included in this database. CC has already developed a system that specifies 6 different types of use where nothing but a credit is required to use the image.
  • In addition there should be codes for “No Use Allowed” and “Must Contact Creator Before Any Use.”
  • There may also be some benign uses that even professionals would allow in an attempt to build customer relations. For example, a photographer might be willing to allow an individual student to use an image free-of-charge for a school project that is not distributed beyond the student’s school. All these should be spelled out in detail. Allowing such uses might train students to always check the Universal Database before making any use of an image found on the Internet.
  • Only the code is stored in the database. When a customer finds an image the full explanation of the code is printed on the customer’s screen.
For more on this subject check out the following articles:

Protecting Image Copyright Worldwide
Chasing Infringements
Streamlining Copyright In The Digital Age
Google Algorithm Change May Discourage Infringement

Copyright © 2012 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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