How to avoid legal action when using free stock photos

Many of us choose to use stock photos for our marketing projects, rather than hiring a professional photographer for a customized shoot.

There are several reason for this. Not least because the photos are usually excellent quality, and they’re available in most niches, making it easy to find one relevant to our business. They’re also readily available, saving us time and effort.

But above all, most of them are free to use, which is much cheaper than hiring a professional photographer for a shoot, and easier than trying to shoot your own (find out how to shoot great product photos here).

Yes, the four-letter word: FREE casts a magic spell on many (if not most) of us. And we excitingly get lured away at the free offer – without giving a thought to the potential consequences.

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The problem with free stock photos

So what’s the problem with free stock photos? In most scenarios, there’s none. The photographer who takes the images has forfeited the usage rights to free stock media sites such as Unsplash and Pixabay.

In return, we’re allowed to use the photos for any purpose we want – without the need to credit the photographer.

Most of the images on the free stock sites come with a Creative Commons Zero license (CC0). The CC0 license signifies that users can copy, adapt, and distribute the pictures as they require.

This means that the images with the Creative Commons Zero license are eligible for commercial use and don’t need consent from the author or the affirmer.

But despite following the above legal formalities, there is a small catch!

Yes, the photographer has the right to surrender their ownership of the image. But do they own the rights to the specific ‘models’ that appear in the photograph? 

Examples of these include:

  • An identifiable person or animal (especially celebrities).
  • Private properties.
  • Government buildings.
  • Landmarks.
  • Trademarks or logo.

For the photographer to allow the users the freedom to use these images, they require a legal release from each model present in the photo.

Interestingly, many popular stock photo sites offering free services don’t ask the photographers to validate the models in their images. They blindly trust the photographer’s creator to have obtained a ‘release’ in advance and allow the images to be included in their database.

They also add thousands of images to their free stock library each day. And checking the legal framework of every submission may not be viable in terms of resources.

What happens in the case of infringement?

It’s quite easy to accidentally use unauthorized images. We’re unfamiliar with the licensing requirements associated with free stock photographs, and use them freely when creating websites, blogs, e-stores, and marketing material.

Unfortunately, the responsibility of using a photo that does not have the required permission falls directly on the publisher – that is you! Even though the stock photo sites served as the host for these images, any potential lawsuit that takes place will be addressed to you.

If you get caught using a protected image from a stock photo library, you could receive a letter demanding to take down the picture immediately. A fine of an unreasonable amount may also be imposed for using the unauthorized image.

Those who fail to comply with the terms listed in the warning letter could be faced with a lawsuit.

Five ways you can protect yourself from legal action

This doesn’t mean that you can’t use free stock photos with confidence. The key is to look out for pictures that are licensed to use for commercial purposes and include authorization from the ‘subjects.’

Here are five ways you can protect yourself from legal action.

1) Choose photos carefully

One of the best ways to stay out of trouble is to choose images from a stock library with caution. As we mentioned above, photo infringement laws apply to images that have:

  • Trademarks.
  • Logos.
  • Recognizable features of people.
  • Landmarks.
  • Private properties.

To protect yourself, avoid photos that have these depicted in them. 

However, if you still want to consider the imagery, make sure the photographer has collected the necessary releases. You can contact the person who took the photo and ask for written consent before using the image for a commercial purpose.

2) Read the licensing details

Most people who use free stock images aren’t aware of the licensing laws. However, now you have some awareness you can protect yourself by carefully reading and adhering to the fine print on the stock photo website’s terms and conditions.

There is also a common misconception that an image that does not have a copyright sign is a public domain and free for anyone to use. But it should be remembered that even without a visible copyright sign, the image can still be protected under law.

3) Use your own original photography

Smartphone cameras have become more sophisticated, making it easier to take your own photos, without needing to invest in expensive equipment, or set up complex shoots.

You can also find plenty of online apps, tools, and software that will help you to edit your photos.

Of course, if you’re planning an important branding or product shoot, or want high quality photos that you can use across your marketing, then it’s always better to invest in a professional photo shoot.

Nothing beats the photos you’ll get from a photographer, and they’re usually an investment that pays off many times over.

4) Avoid Google images

Apart from stock photography sites, people often fall to the temptation of simply downloading a picture from Google Image search.

However, Google is simply a search platform that displays images available on the web. There is no guarantee whatsoever that the images available here are free or authorized for copying.

Apart from legal trouble, using an unconsented Google Image can put your online reputation in danger. And your blog or website could face penalization from the search engine algorithms (SEO). 

5) Use paid and trusted stock agencies

If you frequently need high quality images, it might be worth investing in premium stock sites. For a nominal monthly or yearly subscription, the website will give you access to thousands of royalty-free images that can be used in commercial, editorial, and even personal projects.

The best feature of paid stock sites is that they pay the photographers for contributing their content. And importantly, their vetting process is more thorough than freemium models, so you can be confident that the image has permission for reuse. 

Most of these stock media sites also offer free trials to try out their services and exclusive discounts to help you save money.

Use photos safely

As the adage goes, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ – the need for adding photos to your marketing strategy is vital in 2020. And the availability of free high-quality stock sites has given the consumers an accessible outlet to use images as they wish.

But be vigilant of the photos you use to remain on the safe – and legal! – side.

Photo by Rubén García