Copyright Photos Don’t Lie?

Posted: Wednesday, 15 June 2011 @ 12:55

It has been a shock to many to receive a demand for compensation for unlawful reproduction of images, such as photographs and other artistic and design work. Usually this comes in the form of a written demand from a stock image house such as one of the world’s biggest agencies Getty Images, who actively pursue such claims.

So what is the law? And how do you protect yourself from such demands?

With the explosion of social network sites on the web has come a corresponding explosion in the publication of photographs and videos. It is so easy for the world hooked onto the net to post their photos and video blogs and short video films. Everyone is posting to Facebook®, Twitter®, Linkedin® and Flickr®.


I use Flickr and my photos are automatically posted on my Facebook wall. Looking at Flickr statistics over 4000 photos were uploaded in the last minute and the geotagged items alone number 148,943,201! Back in 2005 they had just 5 million photos on the site.


It is so tempting for anyone looking for a photo to use commercially to find one on the web. A professional photographer may be your best call, but images on the web can sometimes be used if you follow the correct procedures.


It is a common assumption that everything seen on the web is free! Do not make that mistake. Go to a stock house like Getty Images and buy the right to use a photo. Or, if you spot a photo you like anywhere on the web, approach the copyright owner, and ask permission. They may give it for free, but you do need that vital permission confirmed in writing or e-mail.


But what is the position on ownership and use of these photos? Who can use them and when?
Put simply if you take a photograph, shoot a video, or create a design or artistic work, you own the copyright. No one else may reproduce it without your permission by posting it on their website, or printing or copying it in any way. This applies unless you have signed your rights away.


Many photographers sell the rights to stock houses like Getty Images. They may sell the copyright outright, so the image house has ownership and all the rights, or they may sell just a right to reproduce, retaining the copyright ownership for themselves.


As a recent example there was the stunning image of the Space Shuttle shooting through the clouds taken on her mobile phone by an airline passenger flying nearby in Florida. It went viral on Twitter and the BBC contacted her and obtained permission to reproduce it on their news website. But there are many out there who do not behave like the BBC!


Of course with the vast number of photos and videos posted to the web you would think it is often very difficult to keep track of unlawful use. But think again. I had a surprise recently when I discovered that my photo of the Parthenon in Athens was being used by a foreign travel company in their on-line brochure! They attributed the photo to me and acknowledged my copyright, but they had not asked my permission!


Almost every image created digitally has a unique tag, its metadata. It identifies the photo and even the make model and serial number of the camera it was taken on. Of course this is a bit more complicated when it comes to scanned images, but it is possible to tag every image with unique data and a copyright symbol. What this does is make it possible for everyone to search the web and find out who is using their photos, and even to trace missing cameras! That all important metadata is the giveaway. And this makes it easy for image houses like Getty to track unlawful use of photos and demand compensation from the culprits.


So what can you do?


1. Make sure all your own images are tagged with a copyright symbol with your name, e.g © Nigel Musgrove. Usually you can do this in the software you use to upload the image to your pc, and in the uploader on the likes of Facebook® and Flickr®.


2. Flickr® has settings which allow you to restrict who may view and use the photos. Facebook® has its own privacy controls. Make sure you use these and retain copyright and therefore control over use.


3. If you are using photos on your website or in any publication, even if they have been provided by a web or other designer, make sure you have permission to use them and you have a record of it. Do not assume that the designer has obtained permission. If they haven’t, it is you who will be liable to pay compensation for their use.

4. If you have any issues take legal advice at an early stage.

Nigel Musgrove
Business and Litigation Solicitor

Tel:  0845 003 5639

Blog by Nigel Musgrove
Nigel has been providing dispute resolution advice as a solicitor for over 35 years. As well as advising SMEs and business owners on disputes he also offers a specialist licensing law service. View profile
Call Nigel on +44 (0)1285 847 001 or by email
This blog is not intended to constitute legal advice, nor is it intended to be a complete and authoritative statement of the law, and what we say might be out of date by the time you read it. You should always seek legal advice to confirm whether or how any information in this article applies to your particular situation. We offer a free telephone consultation to discuss your particular circumstances.

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