We've had a couple of issues present themselves recently about the use of photographs and/or graphics supplied by our clients for use in their websites and social media posts. Considering the very real and painful experiences we have had in the past about this, I thought it might be a good opportunity to share this with you in this post about the realm of copyrighted images. Despite the perception that the Internet is too huge for anyone to know whether or not you used copyrighted images or not, the reality is it is very possible to find yourself receiving a letter from an attorney demanding fees for the use thereof.
Getty's Copyrighted Images Legal Mill
Some 10+ years ago when we were a much smaller company - but kicking out a whole lot of websites - and there weren't very many resources to purchase stock photos online, we used to use Google Images for representative photo ideas in our mockups. We used them mainly as good examples of what we had in mind for representative images in relation to whatever the page's content was about during its development. Before publishing, we would either take replacement photos ourselves or purchase a similar or the exact photo itself from Getty. The bottom line is, as a professional design firm, our policy has always been to use legitimately purchased photos or graphics for our work.
A large part of Google Image search results at that time would return photos labeled coming from Getty Images. I recall it was a good year-plus span of time where many results in Google Images would show photos as owned by Getty - and then it seemed to stop.
Getty Images is probably the largest stock photo image agency in the world - and can see how they have managed to become so with the practices they've employed to protect their images. Although very prevalent now, at that time was there were no obviously viewable watermarks added to their copyrighted images so it was very easy in our final review process to have a photo get past us without purchasing.
Since there was no clear watermark viewable in the photo, that didn't mean there wasn't one. Apparently Getty was using hidden watermarks and employed a "spider" to crawl the Internet looking for it later to go after those using their copyrighted images illegally. Come three or four years later, we received a frantic phone call from a client saying they had received a letter from a Getty Images attorney demanding several THOUSANDS of dollars for using a very small $10.00 or so (if purchased at the time) photo in their website that wasn't purchased. I have to say the wording of that letter scared us, as well.
My phone call to Getty to explain what happened and offering to make it right by paying for it then was met with a stonewalled response that it was too late for that and we could resolve the matter by paying $1500.00 instead of the original few thousand dollar demand. Since they were going after our client and not us directly - as we were responsible for it happening to begin with - we paid it taking it as a lesson learned. At the time, we took it as a rare one-time incident and it couldn't happen again.
We were wrong.
A couple of months later, we get another panic call from another web client. Same call process and response from Getty and we paid it again. Several months later a third one. This time, we balked and started doing research online to see if others were experiencing what we were. It opened us up to what an incredible money-making scheme Getty had going on. In case after case from others in various forums outraged by this, several claimed refusal to pay anything and described a progression of three ever more threatening letters from Getty's lawyers threatening to take them to court and the potential for tens of thousands of dollars in additional expense if the payment was not made.
I can't imagine how many thousands – probably millions - of Getty images that must have been used by all sorts of entities out there that they had to have gone after. My cynical self found it very interesting that Getty hired a former US Attorney in either 2007 or 2008 as their senior VP and general counsel. It kind of made sense to me considering what was going on. I've never read where Getty ever followed through with actually taking someone to court but have to assume they never had to with the money it was generating for them. Why there was never a class action lawsuit brought against them, we'll never know.
Always Buy Copyrighted Images
So, where is the lesson with all of this and was Getty using an underhanded scheme to generate massive revenues? What does it matter? We know other stock and professional photography entities out there have learned from this scheme and are using it now too. Getting a cease and desist letter is the best scenario you can hope for by using someone else’s copyrighted images. What you can probably expect is demands for outrageous money and a lot of stress. Bottom line is, be a professional and DO NOT USE COPYRIGHTED IMAGES WITHOUT PURCHASING THEM OR ASKING FOR PERMISSION TO USE THEM.