Consider this article a favor of sorts, a cautionary tale for bloggers, writers, social media posters, etc., who like to use images to illustrate the pieces they write and promote online:
I am not only a writer, but also a photographer and a recorded singer/songwriter. As such, I know well the issues related to piracy of copyrighted materials, and the incredible vigilance it takes to prevent one’s work from being used and sold illegally (i.e., without proper credit, without proper payment, without proper permission, etc.). I have found my CDs selling in random Asian countries for $100+ each (who the hell would buy anyone’s CD at that price, and, if they did, where’s my cut?). My photographs have appeared on strangers’ blogs without credit or payment. My articles are frequently excerpted, republished, and copied without permission or compensation, and my books are sold on myriad pirate sites set up by who-knows-who from who-knows-where.
The Internet has turned the commerce of any product available or searchable online into a sort of mayhem, and we artists could literally spend every waking moment of our lives chasing after the illegal usage and sale of our work. But we don’t, we can’t, or we’d never get anything else done. What we do do is protect our work as best we can with copyrights, trademarks, statements of ownership, watermarks, etc.; do our best to market the authentic sites selling our work, and chase after only what makes sense in terms of piracy, leaving the rest to fate.
Given this slightly insane state of affairs, most artists are very sensitive about using the work of other artists, making sure proper permissions, credit, and payment are transacted as required. Writers for The Huffington Post are instructed to use only permissible images—which, for me, means I typically use my own photographs or tap heavily into Wikimedia Commons. Other sites I’ve written for were not, perhaps, as vigilant as Huff Post, but most insisted that writers find and use photos and images that could be properly credited and/or linked to common usage sites (odds are good Huff Post has the safer set of restrictions!).
For my own blogs, I am very particular about using images I’ve either taken myself, or ones that can be tracked down to “free” sites, open-user sites, or are from someone who’s given me explicit permission. Sometimes I find photos online that I want to use, can’t find any information on them, and so do a thorough “Google image search” to attempt to track down the photographer’s name and/or usage rules that apply. But often, particularly given the rampant use of photos without permission or credit, you can search for pages and not find anything helpful…except for the fact that this image is linked to a bevy of blogs! In that case, I sometimes take a chance and, at the bottom of my blog, will credit the photo as: “Photo of blank: artist unknown,” or “found at Pinterest,” or I’ll link it back to the blog where I found it. And in the six years I’ve been writing online, I have never had a problem.
Today I got a letter from Getty Images, alerting me that a random vintage photo I used in an article on this blog several months ago is actually a Getty-licensed image and, as such, I was not only not allowed to use it without permission, I would now have to pay a “settlement” for my infraction. Before I called, I tore though my blog to find the offending photo, immediately took it off the site; frantically did another Google search to see what I could find, and again, it was pages and page of just links to other blogs. But then…. there is was: the link to Getty. It did, in fact, exist, even if it took me pages to find it. In my rush to get that particular article up (it was a response to a rather heated debate going on amongst indie writers and I can only say I must not have been of fully-sound mind at the time!), my search clearly ended just short of finding the rather Google-buried Getty link.
Getty, of all places. I knew I was fucked. Ignorance of the law, as they say, is no defense.
I called the number—a nice enough guy answered, and he told me, in a somewhat condescending tone, that even if one doesn’t find a link to Getty or any other licensing company, using any image without first ascertaining the usage rules, the licensing permission, the photographer’s name, even if that image appears all over the Net without attribution or copyright information, doesn’t absolve one of copyright infringement.
“So if you can find no information about an image—the photographer, the copyright, any usage restrictions, etc.—you simply can’t use it? Ever? Even if you link back to the place where you found it? Even if you did your absolute best search so you could do the proper thing , you still can’t use it?”
“That’s right,” he said. “The artist is not obligated to make that information easily available. It’s the user’s job to find and get permission.”
Or something like that.
I was astonished. I explained that I was an artist, a photographer; I explained that I’m vigilant about checking for these things, and, as a photographer, know well the frustration of people using work without permission.
“All someone has to do is put any image of mine into a Google image search and my name, my website, my information pops up, easily accessible, easily findable; no excuse to not give proper credit! But you’re saying your guy, a Getty photographer, isn’t easily found, is pages and pages into a search, because basically it’s not his, or your, job to make his images findable?”
Or something like that.
He pretty much responded:
And with that, I was sh*t outta luck: he dinged me $249.00 for using this heretofore unknown image on this little blog of mine, which, in a good month, probably only gets about 20 readers and certainly doesn’t make me any money. No amount of pleading (“I’m an indie artist, I’m scrambling to cover my marketing costs, my own images aren’t being properly purchased,” etc.) had any impact. He was a Getty guy and he was doin’ his job for his client.
Good for him. I wish I had a him.
So that’s my cautionary tale, folks. DON’T USE IMAGES TO ILLUSTRATE YOUR BLOGS, YOUR POSTS, YOUR TWEETS, WITHOUT SPECIFIC CREDITS, PERMISSION, AND FEES PAID!
I have NO idea how he found my very-low-on-Alexa blog; I don’t know if someone alerted them to my use of this particular picture (given how many other sites were using it, they must have had quite a payday today!), but I do know I’ve now gone through every image on every article I’ve ever written to check that all permissions were intact; removed any images I was even remotely uncertain about, and will NEVER again use any image I didn’t either shoot myself, find on Wikimedia Commons, pull off a free usage site, or specifically receive from a living, breathing, permission-giving person.
There goes my Christmas budget. Damn.
UPDATE: After being told by other bloggers that Getty has an “embed” option, one touting , “it’s easy, legal, and free!!”, I got back in touch with my Getty “handler” and asked why he hadn’t alerted me to this, allowing me to just embed the photo-in-question rather than rake me for $249. His response?
“Your website is commercial in that it promotes you and your writings (some of which you expect to be paid for). The embed offering is not authorized for anything connected to commercial intent.”
“Commercial.” My little blog here, talking about my self-published books and those of others, is “commercial.” For God’s sake…
And he continued:
“The use we found was not embedded—which is why we selected the fee associated with the un-embedded use of that image within a blog post (on a website that promotes you and your writings). Had the image been embedded within a blog post that wasn’t directly promoting/selling/advertising in a commercial manner then it’s unlikely you would have heard from our compliance department.
“You can read more about this on our website at http://www.gettyimages.com/company/terms (scroll down to the section on Embedded Viewer).”
I took umbrage:
“Believe me, if that image was somewhere listed as “embeddable,” with the rules about embedding vs. inserting clearly indicated, I doubt I, or anyone else who used it, would have had any problem ascertaining how to use it properly. It was not.
“But, again, your assignation of my blog as being of ‘commercial use’ is patently absurd. I did not use your photo to sell a product; it was used to illustrate an article about writing, the act of writing. To hit me up for $249 as a result of that, for a photo that, if I’d embedded it would have been free, is very…uncharitable, I’ll leave it at that.“Basically, it seems wise for any writer/blogger/website owner to NOT use (even via embedding) any Getty image, since the interpretation of what is ‘commercial’ by your company is quite…expansive. I will be sure to advise colleagues accordingly. Which is a shame for the artists you represent, who might appreciate the use of their work in blogs and on websites of articulate writers and bloggers.”
Big corporations just love us little guys.
I’ll let you decide how to proceed using Getty images, but be very, very sure they can’t ding you for being “commercial.” That’s an expensive little ding.
Be careful out there.
“Don’t Use” Photo by LDW (trust me!!)
Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.