Three Common Misconceptions About Copyright

The other day, I was perusing my Twitter feed and I came across something that was somewhat concerning. It was an exchange between a social media manager and a client, documented on Clients From Hell. It wouldn't have caught my attention if I hadn't had similar experiences with clients myself. Although these clients were far from being hellish (my clients rock!), these experiences alerted me to the fact that there are many misunderstandings about copyright and ethically using images. While I am, by no means, an expert on copyright, I thought I would take a minute to explain the things I do know and hopefully clear up any misconceptions about image usage and copyright.

This is the mistake the client mentioned above made. Just because something is on the internet doesn't mean you can rightfully use it. Likewise, taking an image from a Google Image search and using it for commercial purposes is not always ethical or legal. Many people go this route because it means they don't have to pay a photographer or pay to use a stock image. I understand the need to keep costs to a minimum, but if you use images without the correct permissions, you are likely violating a copyright. Copyright infringements can lead to lawsuits, something that no company really wants to deal with. As a creative professional, I refuse to simply take images from Google or use them without the proper license. This protects both me and my client.

I realize I might be stepping on some toes with this one. In my few years as a creative professional, I have encountered this multiple times and have advised colleagues on how to handle these situations. The problem seems to be more common among photographers who sell images online. The truth is that this is just as much stealing as misusing images without a license because that's essentially what is going on. The person does not have a license to the image until they purchase the license. Some photographers include this in their up-front cost, others sell images separate from the cost of the shoot. If the photographer is selling the images separate from the shoot, the client does not necessarily have a license to the images. Often, when the client purchases the photo, they also purchase the license (depending on how the photographer has things arranged). If you have not paid to use the image, taking a screenshot, at the very least by ethical measures, is no different than stealing.

To make things more complicated, a license does not always mean printing rights, and most of the time the copyright remains with the photographer. If you are purchasing photography services or are ordering prints online, it's always a good idea to review your contract or contact your photographer so you are clear on what you have the right to do with that photo.

Thank you for giving us photographers credit for our work. However, that comes with mixed feelings when we recognize that you're crediting us for a stolen image. You wouldn't brag about how the wallet you just stole doesn't belong to you, even if nobody realizes that it's stolen. Crediting the photographer for an image you didn't pay for isn't a copyright violation, but many people think that giving credit for it makes stealing it ethically acceptable, and even legal. I see how this might make a good amount of sense, but it isn't about the credit given. It's about using the image that you haven't paid for. Crediting the photographer only shows them that you stole their image and don't want to pay for the session that you invested good time and money in. We love when you put photos from your session on social media; it shows us that you're happy with what you got. What makes us even happier is when you purchase the images and use them correctly.

At the end of the day, an image is a product, much like a cup of coffee or a magazine, and just because it's in a digital format doesn't mean it should be free. When you see a price tag on an image, whether it be Getty Images or a local wedding photographer, you're looking at an amount that contributes to someone's livelihood. Using images without paying for them takes a living away from someone, and in a sense is expecting them to work for free. If we asked the barista at Starbucks for free coffee, we might get a sample size, and if we walked out of Barnes & Noble with a magazine we didn't pay for, we might get busted for shoplifting. When you purchase the right to use an image, you value the work that someone else has done for you, and you usually get a better quality image without a watermark. Honoring the copyright, paying for the rights, and correctly using images is a win for everyone involved.

For more on copyright and intellectual property:
Intellectual Property Rights for Instagram, Flickr and Twitter Photos