You found this great architectural project image on the web similar to the type your firm designs and builds and you downloaded it. With the downloaded image you create a marketing campaign for your AEC firm that is sure to be a feather in your cap this year come review time. It’s a-ma-zing! You launch it across social, post it your website, and even send a targeted email campaign out to new prospects.
Fast forward to months later, you’re contacted by a law firm who’s identified the image in your a-ma-zing marketing campaign as that of their pro photographer client located halfway across the country. Their letter asks you to take the image down immediately due to usage infringement. Unfortunately your firm doesn’t have a license (aka permission) to use said image. What do you do now?
First, take down the image. Immediately. Doing so is an act of good faith, particularly when legal motion is in play. Take it down from every social post, your website, etc. But first, you may hesitate, and ask yourself, “well why can’t we use it? We found it online.”
This is a very common belief and a common practice — to connect the internet to free use. But it’s ultimately a risky move that’s worth discussing here before you download that next image you think is free to use. If you’re not a creative professional (i.e. pro photographer or pro videographer), it’s an easy mistake to make. Searchable images on the internet don’t mean they’re publicly available for anyone to download and use freely, especially for commercial purposes.
The safest approach I always suggest is to operate from the position that “someone” created this image, and it most likely wasn’t you. If the image is worth it to you to potentially procure, finding out where the image comes from, and who you might ask to use it, is the next wise step.
All images are copyrighted.
Images become the copyright of their creator the moment the shutter button is pressed as is the case in commercial architectural photography. Using this as a guideline across the board is my best advice. Think of the internet as a storefront, you’re really shopping other people’s images. You can browse and window shop, but once you decide what you’d like to get, it’s best to go in the shop and ask them how much it costs, or what you need to do to get it. You wouldn’t just break the storefront glass and pull out what you want there and then, right? An extreme example, but you get where I’m going with it.
Copyrights are a complex topic, so look for me to cover that in detail in a future article. One last thing to note here is that taking the image down is the first step, however, it doesn’t mean you are clear of the occurrence(s) of having used it. There are fines that can follow for each incidence of usage that will still apply for having used it without proper licensing (aka permission).
So what is an image license? Isn’t licensing just asking “permission” to use a photo or give someone photo credit? It’s not that simple.
A license is an agreement between the photographer (creator) and the client-party that wants to use their image. In essence the client is given permission to use an image(s) within a set of guidelines, often with outlined terms and conditions, and is usually associated with some form of payment. All granted by the photographer.
This is a standard industry business practice among pro photographers, videographers and generally all creatives making physical or digital work (artists, writers, etc.). This is how we all make a commercial living.
Within to topic of image licensing there are:
- Types of licenses (royalty-free, creative commons, etc.)
- Types of photography (commercial, editorial, retail, etc.)
- Type of restrictions (print runs, additional users, etc.)
Learn more about rights and licenses here.
Most creatives in business are looking to make a living doing work they love. If you used a photographer’s image in error and take it down, my hope is that the situation won’t escalate from there, but there are times when it can.
A quick story of a pro photographer friend of mine whose image was downloaded, modified and then used in a kickstarter campaign online that raised $75K. The case still in litigation as we speak, as the person using the pro image is refusing to own up to it not being their own. I expect there will be fines associated and lawyers are definitely involved. My advice is that it’s best just to avoid this kind of entanglement and hassle. Get permission in advance, or move on to other images.
In the State of CT, fines for image use infringement start at $1,500/per occurrence. You read that correctly, per occurrence. So doing everything you can to “undo” the usage first, or even better, inquiring if you can pay a fee to use that photographer’s image, are steps in the right direction. Most people don’t know any better, but for those that do, I implore you to find another way to get the images you seek. Support a local pro photographer, you’ll make their day!
Acquiring the necessary usage license (aka permission) is key to ensuring you manage the images you’re using and steer clear of those you don’t have permission to use, no matter how much you want them and they appear to be right there for the taking. It’s truly an illusion.
If you really want an image, it’s worth the time to find out who created it, if you can purchase access to it, or if you need to find another image you can get royalty-free or purchase as low-cost stock, and use it worry-free.
Avoid the legal misstep of infringement.