Girl with tabletContent marketers beware! Hungry lawyers are gathering in packs. Over the last several years, thousands of website owners have received legal letters from stock image companies like Getty Images and Corbis accusing them of being in breach of copyright infringement.

Blog owners are handed a desist and remove notice, but are also being told they have to pay damages – in some cases up to 20 time the value of the actual image.

The aggressive approach of firms like Getty have raised questions about the ethical integrity of their pursuit, claiming it is morally wrong even though the law in on their side. There is even a question of criminal behaviour.

A team of lawyers in the United States, Michael Chan and Oscar Michelen, have called the threat an “extortion scheme” and have dedicated an entire website to raise awareness of unwitting “infringers”.

What is the law on copyright images?

When anybody produces a creative piece of work and publishes the piece in a public domain, it is classed as intellectual property and belongs to the person that created the piece.

Therefore, you can take a picture of your family and post it on Facebook and it immediately becomes intellectual property. If somebody uses your photograph without your permission, you can legally sue them for copyright infringement.

And this is what Getty Images and other stock photo firms are doing. However, there is a problem in the system that allows them to do this and be protected by the law. The complications arrive under the creative commons licence.

What is creative commons licence in the Copyright Act?

The owner of a piece of copyrighted work has the right to allow other people to use their images. They do this by permitting a creative commons licence. There are certain provisions and attribution options you can choose.

  • Royalty free images allows anybody to use your images without asking your permission beforehand
  • Credit attribution allows others to use an image on the provision the copyright owner is named as the originator
  • Modification attribution allows other users to adapt, add or transform the original image

Using images from controlled sources like Flickr stipulate whether rights are reserved and whether the images are attributed quite clearly. This is how images should be labelled in the digital arena to protect both the owner of the copyright and inform blog owners whether or not the image can be used.

Unfortunately, search engines and stock image companies like Getty and Corbis are not doing that. Although they are best placed to improve the system, they have not attempted to put any measure in place.

Then they sue blog owners who have used their images unwittingly!

The defect in the image system

When you search in Google images, you will often find images that are labelled “All Rights Reserved.” This means that the owner has claimed copyright for the entire image and nobody can use it for their own purposes or amend it in any way.

Fair enough. The image has been clearly identified with a hands off label.

However, when you search in Google Images creative commons, there are no labels, attributions or otherwise. Based on the understanding of creative commons licences it is quite natural for bloggers to believe the images are royalty free and available for use.

Apparently not according to Getty and Corbis. Now, these firms would have a case to argue if they were small business owners or as in the example above, Facebook users, that are ignorant of the copyright laws.

But they are not!

Do these companies not owe a legal duty to their clients to protect their intellectual property? Yes they have! They have therefore been negligent and in breach of contract with their clients.

If the images belong to them, these companies are well aware of the potential for copyright infringement, yet have failed to protect their own intellectual property. Why? Perhaps Chan and Michelen of extortionlettersinfo.com are right.

Should you publish images that are not your own?

To avoid persecution, the best option is to make your own images. However, when this is not possible, only use stock image photos that are clearly labelled as free to use and respect the owners wishes.

If you do not know whether you can use an image, it is best practice not to use it at all. If you already have, remove all images you cannot account for from your server before stock image companies send in their bots to track you down.

Even though claims for a breach of copyright infringement will not go to court – chiefly because of the immoral and unethical practices – it is still better to avoid the shock of receiving a letter and the subsequent worry about the extortionate amount of money you are being ordered to pay.

Legal representative can be extremely forceful because they know the general public is afraid of the law – even for an offence you did not know you were committing.