Hidden danger of using free digital photo websites

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Before you use another “free” digital image, you must read this

Do you use free digital photos on your blog or your website? Well you might be sitting on a ticking time bomb!

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article is based on my interpretation of my findings. I am not an expert in legal matters, so recommend that you do your own research in this area and consult legal advice if needed. The purpose of this article to raise awareness and provide a warning to those using free digital imagery.

With all the free services popping up across the internet to solve the issue of finding stock photography for each blog post we churn out, it seems like it has become so much easier to find that ideal image. And yes it makes life easier for us designers, internet marketers and bloggers. But what happens when Getty Images lets Dun & Bradstreet loose on you?

Think this won’t happen? Well how do you prove where you downloaded a free image from 5 years ago, that now only seems to be available on GettyImages, when free images don’t actually come accompanied with a licence?

If you buy an image, you should receive a copy of the licence that you can download with the image. Also you generally need an account with that image provider, so there is usually a record then of the images you have purchased. But when you download a free image, you get nothing. You are told that the image is “Public Domain” or “Creative Commons CC0”, but you don’t get a copy of this attached to the image to prove that. You also don’t have a record of downloading that image from the website either.

But it says it is free to use, even for commercial purposes

This is true. But what if I told you that the free image websites waive responsibility for checking that an uploaded image isn’t actually someone else’s work? What if I told you that an image can be removed by the author for whatever reason – how would you then prove that the image existed on that website in the first place? That’s if you can remember which website you downloaded it from in 5 years time (especially if you use a few image sources)!

What if I told you that a free photos website can remove an image if they find out it has breached copyright? How would they notify people who have already downloaded that image and are using it on their own websites – that they are now infringing on copyright? THEY DON’T TELL YOU THIS – THEY CANNOT TELL YOU THIS.

It is happening at this moment and you could be next!

A website client of mine recently received a bill for over $600 for use of a small “unlicenced” image on their website. It was an old image downloaded several years ago from a free photo source, and so no licence could be shown to prove this. Searching on the internet it was discovered that this image was being used on many different websites, but that the only “official” place to obtain the image now was through GettyImages. As a result they had no option but to pay the fee for “copyright infringement”.

Following the incident, I took a moment to view the terms of use for some well known free image websites, to see what they were doing to protect their users. I guess I expected to find what I did, but I was still a little disappointed.

It might seem reasonable that if a website, especially a small business, were to find themselves in a situation where an image appeared on their website and they had unknowingly and unintentionally used an image they believed to have been free, that a request and warning to remove it from their website would be fair. But it seems that the first notification is by way of compensation ordered to pay by debt collectors.

So what next?

Well my recommendation is that if you use free images on your website or blog, try to credit the source of the image in your blog post (so that you have a record of where the image came from), or record the URL of the image you download, or otherwise purchase an image that is accompanied by an actual downloadable copy of the licence to use that image.

I’d welcome any comments from anyone who has encountered any issues with using free images, or any representatives of the free image sources that would like to reassure users of their free stock photos, or any other useful advice. Feel free to share below.