Steve Pigeon is the founder and President of Masterfile Corporation in Toronto, a global licensor of premium rights-managed and royalty free stock images since 1981. An earlier version of this article was published in Applied Arts in 2011.
Just because something is easy to copy doesn’t mean it’s free.
This is a trick question: A designer creates a website for a client. The designer cuts corners and downloads images from a Google search without telling the client that the images were unlicensed. So, who is legally responsible when the copyright owner shows up demanding payment for the stolen images? If you guessed the designer who created the website and got paid for doing it, you would be wrong. Under copyright laws in most countries – including the USA and Canada – the client who owns the website is legally and financially responsible for the infringement. I speak from experience.
Masterfile’s core business for the past 34 years has been acquiring and licensing premium rights-managed and royalty-free stock images for commercial use in advertising and publication in all forms of media. We pay a royalty to the respective artist or agency every time we license their images anywhere in the world and we generate millions of dollars annually for our contributors. That’s the fun part of our business.
But, with the growth of the Internet and digital media, we’ve also been fighting to preserve the copyright of our contributors and ensure that they’re paid when their images are used. Pursuing copyright infringement isn’t fun.
The Internet has made copyrighted information and media universally accessible, and that’s a good thing. Digital technology has made it incredibly easy to copy and reproduce almost any form of intellectual property with the click of a mouse or swipe of a finger – and that’s not so good. Copyright laws were enacted to protect the creators of literary and artistic works from unrestricted copying of their creations and provide a legal right for them to be paid when their works were used. Those laws as well as the livelihoods of content creators have been assaulted on every side by parties who want to enjoy creative works – and even profit by them – without necessarily compensating the creators. Everyone is familiar by now with the issues of music file sharing, motion picture piracy and other forms of infringement resulting in litigation and even criminal proceedings. But even sophisticated companies have been surprised when we inform them that the beautiful image an intern found on Google was not in the “public domain” and therefore was not free to use. The lack of awareness of copyright laws regarding images is widespread and staggering.
We work with a service that uses image recognition technology to monitor commercial websites and compare any images found on those sites against our own collection. When it finds a match, we determine whether the found use was licensed or not. Usually it’s not. We’ve come up against infringers in every sector you can imagine: small, medium and large businesses, governments, religious groups, business consultants, financial advisors, software companies and even law firms – that’s right, law firms using unauthorized image content on their own websites!
Every year, Masterfile has to pursue thousands of copyright infringements involving unauthorized use of images on websites and social media. We are tasked with contacting the infringers, getting the images taken down and collecting retroactive fees for the unlicensed use of our artists’ images. Unfortunately, the business owner is left with the bill because a designer or employee tried to save money.
In a world where you can acquire good quality images easily and legally at any price point your budget allows, there’s really no need to cut corners. If you’re uncertain about the legal provenance of any creative work, don’t publish it – use a professional photographer or stock agency and do the right thing by your company or your client.