Free stock photos? Wonderful, and here’s how to avoid getting sued.

Free images are awesome, but they come with a host of gotchas that have been known to catch businesses out. We go through the pitfalls and the things you should do to protect yourselves.

News Opinion

We all love a freebie, am I right? I certainly do. And the image used here, for this article, is just such a thing, lifted straight from Unsplash because that’s the current go-to source for free images.

However, there are traps. We’ve come across a few stories of publishers who have been caught out. Not by anything Unsplash or similar have done, but by the rights holders themselves. This can end with you being sued or, more likely, having to make a settlement that is likely to make that image feel rather expensive. And these settlements can be well into the thousands. Do the following and reduce your chances of uncomfortable situations.

1. Read the Terms & Conditions

Yes, this is very very tedious. If you haven’t read the Terms & Conditions for the provider you wish to use, then don’t use that service. Trust me. Don’t just go willy nilly on us and use twenty or thirty different image sources in a year. You’ll regret it. Make sure that every source used is chosen by management and that your users don’t feel free to use any image they find.

Take a copy of these Ts&Cs and stick them somewhere safe in your systems, once a year or so.

2. Keep a verifiable record of your source

When you take an image and upload it to your server, the image will generally have a timestamp and maintain the filename. In most CMSs you can also add in a description into the image meta values about where the image comes from. In our own Standfirst and WordPress systems we preserve image meta data where possible but you should check as not all images have the right metadata inserted.

You should also consider adding a credit to the image into the content, at the bottom. It’s nice for the content creator, and it adds another layer of protection, because in years to come the image can be removed from the service and the image rights sold to someone else, and the new rights holders might not be so pleasant. If you can’t point to where you got the image from, they can assume you stole it. Paper trails matter. Especially as there are predatory rights hunters out there who know they can persuade businesses to settle and make lawyers go away for a few thousand, rather than have to deal with a copyright law fight that could cost much much more. And nobody wins when you go to court. You need to avoid getting there in the first place!

3. Just because it’s visible on Google doesn’t make it free!

It’s fifteen years since we started out in web publishing, and I still come across people who don’t get how the internet and image copyright works and sometimes they get sued for it. You can’t just take an image off the web and use it yourself. It has to come from a suitable source with appropriate rights and you need that paper trail to prove you have the rights (see above). There are a number of guides on navigating this, but you can usually search for and find images with appropriate Creative Commons rights and so long as your team understands, it’ll help. Read this CC guide on how they work. So yes, you can go to Google or flickr or Bing and find awesome images for free, but you need to check those rights. And again, decide if you want to work with multiple sources.

4. Consider paying, just for the indemnity and protection you receive

Although Unsplash et al are wonderful, they’re all dependent on user uploads and automated checking. This is very fallible and there’s a lot of trust involved. Some services, such as iStock offer protection and indemnity from such abuse, but that means paying. It’s not wildly expensive to pay for images, and there are good reasons why you might consider it. However, if you’re struggling with Covid or Brexit outcomes or similar, then margins may be tight and free services can be worth the risk of having no indemnity. We use them ourselves, but we’re also savvy, have access to legal advice, and have been doing this since the early days of the internet.

5. Do a reverse image search

If you do a reverse image search of the photo used at the top of this article, you find that there are a great deal of similar images, but none that are identical or are on a stock image library or an original source. That is a suggestion that the image is OK and not been stolen and upload to Unsplash. In Edge and Chrome you can quickly right click on an image and do such a search – it provides a great deal of information in how that image, or variants of it, have been used. If you see it on a paid for service such as Getty or iStock then keep well away – especially as they have an excellent legal team.

A reverse image search is easy and fast

6. Where we can help

If you’ve had an approach from a rights holder about an image on your site, we can help identify key pieces of information about the image that may help protect you and save you thousands. If you’re a current customer, we can often dig deep into your filesystem and metadata for information. If you’re not, we can do a little bit of forensic work to identify exactly when you uploaded the image. We can also advise on some questions to ask. We’re not a legal service, however, and merely act in a support context for your legal team or advisers by providing expert insight, quickly and cost-effectively. In most cases we can provide the information you’ll need for approximately £120 per image and it could save you thousands.

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