Thursday, 6 January 2011

The myth of the copyright free photo - "found it on the web"

With the launch of a new Twitter group "BoycottGetty" campaigning against Getty Images "extortion" of thousands of dollars from unsuspecting individuals or businesses using photos without permission I thought I'd explore the murky world of the legalities of using photos from the web for your own purposes.

Recently Dover council wanted an image of the White Cliffs to use on their website. They made the mistake of using a photo in which the white cliffs actually turned out to be in Sussex, 50 miles away. The story hit the newspapers. The Town Clerk, a person who you'd expect to know better said....

'The web designers were asked to provide a photo of the white cliffs, which they did. Part of their remit was to keep costs to a minimum, therefore nothing with a copyright was used. This caused its own problems, since it was hard to find a copyright-free photo taken with a professional, high-definition camera.'

So, here we go - let's blame the web designers. Well, they are to some extent to blame because they should have turned around and said "Can't do. There's no such thing as a copyright free photo!"

You see, every photo is taken by someone. And within the laws of the USA, UK, EU countries and in fact virtually every country on the planet, with one or two exceptions where the copyright is owned by an employer say, the person who took the photo owns the copyright.

And when they put it on the web, they still own the copyright. Copyright doesn't disappear! If a photo exists on the web then someone took it, therefore it is copyright. Simple. Except if you are in denial.

There are one or two wrinkles here -  perhaps the photographer's been dead 100 years. There are also come "public domain" images, for example, those taken by NASA of the moon. But otherwise every photo is copyright, like it or not, that's the way it is.

So why do people have this complete misperception when it comes to photos on the web? I've heard people say "I found it on the web" to explain why they think they can use a photo on their website.

The Daily Mail article compounds the folly of the Dover Town Clerk's statement by intepidly going off to find a random member of the public, taxi driver Terry Marshall, who said "If the town council really couldn't afford to spend money on finding a decent copyright-free picture, they should have asked for one before this embarrassing blunder happened." The reporter, who should know better, does not explain to the Town Clerk the error of his thought patterns on copyright but goes off into Kent to find someone to backup the Town Clerk's dodgy views that a copyright free photo of the white cliffs is there to be found.

So there you have it - Dover town council staff are out there spending hours searching for something that does not exist. You can only wonder why rather than waste all the time they don't save taxpayer's money paying their wages by going out and spending a few pounds on a decent stock photo from a reputable library.

A quick final example. Let's suppose for you want to use an image of a cute scotty dog puppy - why not skip off to Google Images and do a search on "scotty dog puppy". Gosh! 119,000 to choose from - you're spoilt for choice.

Click on an image. Google tells you "this image may be subject to copyright". What they should say is "This image is copyright". In 99.99% of cases they would be right. But by using the wet statement "may be subject to copyright" they are still correct and preserve the impression, shared by many, that unless there is a copyright notice next to or on the face of an image then it is fair game to grab it and use it. That impression, which preserves Google Images as the web's number one tool for finding images,  is what this article is intended to debunk.

So, are all those cute scotty dog images really copyright?  Well, if one was taken 100 years ago then it may be copyright free, or maybe the photo was taken in a third world country with no copyright laws. But the unfortunate reality is that copyright free is a concept too far, wishful thinking on the part of people who would like something for nothing.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. OK, nice, but to ask to remove the post of a photography blog in which some of your pictures were shown to say all the good we thought of them is honestly a poor conception of how the web community works. Seeing art as a property that needs authorizations, money or anything else to be shown is sad. If everyone did the same, all the photography blogs would disappear and the web would be a sordid place.