Photo by Rock'n Roll Monkey on Unsplash

THE internet is a treasure trove of information and imagery, but journalists are finding out to their cost that assuming it is free can be expensive.

Copyright of an image is normally owned by the photographer who took it – unless they did it in the course of their employment, in which case their employer owns it.

Their rights last a long time too. A photographer owns copyright throughout their life and then it passes to their heirs for another 70 years. Material only becomes ‘public domain’ and free to use at the end of that 70-year period.

For freelance photographers, protecting their rights in an image is very important to their livelihood. If a photo is copied online without permission or payment it can drastically affect their income.

Many photographers and large archives are now using technical means to protect their copyright. Some picture archives utilise bots, such as Picscout, to crawl the web looking for unauthorised use of imagery and when they find such use, they generate an invoice.

Use of these technical means to detect copyright beach is on the increase. Pixsy recently signed a deal with Flickr to protect members’ imagery.

The detection can be quite nuanced as well. I have been contacted recently by people who have used a Creative Commons photo, but they neglected to comply with one of the conditions of the commons site where they obtained the photo – they failed to give the photographer a byline.

This omission resulted in invoices for £300 and £400, which the recipients had little choice but to pay – though with my guidance they negotiated the fee downward.

The lesson is, be careful of online imagery, owners can sometimes be determined in pursuing payment using technical means to do so.

If you want an image, contact the owner to get permission. If it is a Creative Commons site, make sure you read the T&Cs carefully and comply with them, so that what should have been a free picture does not cost you money.

If you or your organisation are concerned about this, I provide training in copyright and how to avoid these issues. It can be included in the general media law training sessions that I run, or as a standalone session focussed on copyright alone. For details see my Media Law Training page.

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