Why Do Customers Infringe Copyright?

Posted on 10/30/2017 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Photographers and agencies complain about Copyright Infringement. But, in many ways they make it hard for customers to discover who owns an image, whether it is one that needs to be licensed and how to properly license it. Most people in business will tell you that if you want to sell more products you need to make it easier for customers to find and pay for your products.

Identifying the copyright holder is not a problem for customers who go to stock photo agencies to find the images they need. The agency handles the transactions and compensates the creator.

But increasingly customers are finding the images they want to use through Google searches or on websites like Pinterest, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Tumbler, or any of the hundreds of thousands of blogs they look at everyday. They spend a lot more time on these sites than searching stock photo agency collections.

Seldom is there any information connected to images found on the non-stock-agency sites that would give the potential user any indication of who took the image. In the rare cases where the photographer has placed a copyright notice on the image there is almost never any indication about how to locate that photographer or his/her representative in order to license the work.

Instead of making it easier for potential customers to locate the owner of a randomly discovered image, we in the stock photo industry make it difficult. The argument we present is that if someone wants an image that can be used for commercial purpose they should come to one of our sites, do a search and use what we have to offer. For many customers, that is no longer the best way to solve their problem.

If there is no copyright notice on images found on the Internet, the customer has three options:
    (1) She can go through a very elaborate and time consuming search process of trying to locate the copyright holder and probably not be successful. (Statistically, it is much more likely that an image found on the Internet was created by a private individual who has no understanding or interest in licensing than by a photographer who expects to receive some compensation for a commercial use of the image.)

    (2) She can just pass by and forget about that image knowing that it will be too difficult to find the creator.

    (3) She can use the image and hope she never gets caught.
In cases 2 and 3 the agency and the image creator lose because they don’t get any money for the use of their image unless they spend a lot of time and effort chasing infringements. In case 1 they probably lose because the chances the customer will locate the image owner are slim. Even if she finds the image owner she won’t be happy about all the time it took her to do it.

Anyone who wants to use the image commercially knows that in order to avoid legal hassles later they must negotiate rights and pay to use the image. They don’t want to go to option 3, but if they are under time pressure (which everyone is) they may take the risk.


What is needed is a single, worldwide website where everyone interested in licensing uses to their work could place thumbnails of every image they have available for licensing along with details of how they, or their representative could be contacted.

Those who find images they would like to use, but with no readily available contact information, would be able to make a digital copy of that image, conduct a visual search on this new site and determine if the image needs to be licensed as well as where to go to get such a license.

It would be the responsibility of each image creator, or his or her representative, to insure that every image they wanted to protect was included in this collection.

Given today’s technology such a database would not be that hard to create. There are already companies like Picturemaxx.com, PicturEngine.com, the Copyright Hub in the UK, (also see here) and Photoshelter.com that have huge collections of images from multiple stock agencies and individual photographer.

In addition, there are the big collections: Getty Images, Shutterstock, AdobeStock, Alamy that could easily build a separate search location that would include not only their images, but the works of anyone else who wanted to participate.


Paying For Such A Service

One of the questions is how to pay for such a service. It seems to me that we are getting to a point where more and more image users would be happy to pay a small fee for such information rather than take a much greater risk that there might be legal hassles down the road.

I would propose that a system be set up where a small fee is paid each time someone wants to use the service to locate the owner of a particular image. Users of this service might purchase a package of credits for $10 or more and have credits worth a few dollars deducted every time they do a new image search. Based on the number of unauthorized uses that are currently being discovered by companies pursuing copyright infringements, I believe there are a significant number of user who would be willing to pay a few dollars in order to have some confidence that they have the legal right to use the image they have decided to use.

If most creators see to it that their images are placed in such a collection then customers who use the service would be in a stronger legal position by being able to demonstrate that they had tried to locate the image owner and could not locate that person. Companies that use freelance graphic designers could require that the designers demonstrate that they have the legal right to use any image included in their projects, or at least tried to locate the creator.

Not A Place To License

It should be clear that this site is not a central place to license uses, but simply a central place to determine which images need to be licensed.

For such a site to work it would be important for it not to offer keyword search or licensing. The site would only store small files sufficient for a visual search and no hi res images. If an image is found as a result of a visual search the only information supplied would be a list of contact information as to where an individual could go to license rights to use the image.

Customers Will Go To Cheapest Source

Some argue that if there were multiple sources where the customer could license an image the customer would always go to the cheapest source and this would tend to force prices down even further. Given today’s distributor system, for any given image the customer might be supplied with the names of multiple agencies as well as the image creator him or herself assuming the creator uploaded their own images separately.

However, in order to determine the lowest price, the customer would need to go to each agency to check the price, a time consuming process that might only save a few dollars. It seems more likely that the customer will go to the first agency listed, or an agency they had done business with before, and accept whatever price the agency asked if it was within the customer’s budget. The customer might prefer to deal directly with the image creator, but that person might be more difficult to contact than the agency representing the creator.

The important thing to consider is that this makes it easier for the customer to legally license the image they want to use.

Agencies may feel that, “If the customer can’t find the image they really want they will come to us and use what we have.” That assumes that the customer doesn’t try to steal the image they want, or pick another sources entirely. When that happens both the photographer and the agency lose out on a possible sale.

It Would Eliminate The Need For Stock Agencies

Some say such a service would eliminate the need of stock agencies, but stock agencies will still offer a valuable service that most photographers can’t supply themselves. Most customers will still want to go to sources with curated collections of images that are keyword searchable than relying on Google searches for all their image discovery.

The customer would still need to go to an agency or the individual creator to license rights and get a usable image file. Stock agencies would still be needed when the customer doesn’t have the exact image he or she wants to use.

People Will Steal Anyway

See this story.

Such a system would also be advantageous for individuals whose work is not represented by an agency, but who want to license uses of their work rather than just give it away. It would particularly be beneficial for photographers who post a lot of their images on Pinterest. By using the reverse search image users could actually locate information on how to contact the image creators, or their representatives, in order to legally license use of a work.

Copyright © 2017 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.  


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