How legal is your use of images?

Shard tree image
The Shard, London

I first worked with Alyson Whalley of picture agency AW Media Research many moons ago when we were both at FITCH, the retail and brand consultancy. Now she runs her own business, working across the photographic industry worldwide, from picture research and editing to art buying to commissioning photographers. Her clients include media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and Channel 4, design and advertising agencies and corporates.

When visiting her recently in London she mentioned that she has been spending more and more time working with clients on copyright and legal issues relating to photographs, and in particular training staff who work on online projects on these issues:

“To give you an example, one of my clients runs an online magazine as well as a print edition. They hadn’t realised that their online team had no understanding of the process of clearing copyright or checking if images were available to use until they received a letter from an American law firm with a $3,000 bill for unauthorised use of an image of a photographer they represent.

The online team presumed that if they saw an image online, it was ok to use it. They had no concept of rights or clearance or even the simple business of crediting the images. They had misused images from classic photographic collections, used them cropped instead of full frame and had taken images from celebrities’ websites with no attempt to contact for permission or any acknowledgement and credit at all.

The potential legal and unauthorised uses bills were huge. One charge was for the illegal use of an image that a photographer had sold exclusively for first rights and had already agreed second rights with another client. So not only had the team illegally used this image, but they had also caused a huge problem for the photographer and his clients.

I trawled and checked their web edition. Within half a day I had found numerous infringements. Some of the images could be cleared and fees paid retrospectively, others would be fine with permission and proper acknowledgement. However, as they had not obtained this, the images needed to be taken down as soon as possible.

Lawyers and agencies worldwide are increasingly issuing ‘take down’ notices. Photographers are tracking their images using embedded code or reverse engine searches to check uses.  Many are now generating a significant income from chasing illegal online uses.

If companies are using images online, it is vital to trace them back to the copyright holder and get written permission and a licence to cover the use they want to make. If they cannot find the licence holder and really need to use the image, they should make sure that they have proof they have made all possible efforts they can. This may help if the photographer sees the images and charges them.

Copyright issues for photographs online and in print can be a complicated, time-consuming business. By ignoring the legal issues because staff are too busy or do not think anyone will notice can be very costly to the organisation’s finances and reputation.”

If you’re now wondering whether your use of images online could be problematic, AW Media Research can check existing website images, clearing them retrospectively where possible, and set up in-house systems to help prevent problems going forward. They also work on a retainer basis, if you want to check your use of photographs on an ongoing, ad hoc basis, to avoid costly mistakes and unforeseen legal fees.

To contact AW Media Research, please call 07940 590884 or email