“Hey! Someone stole our photos!”

This morning when I opened my email, there was a frantic email from one of my clients saying “Hey! Someone stole our photos!”  She attached a link to the website of one of her direct competitors where I indeed found several of the same images she used in her marketing.

The problem is that they aren’t her photos.  That is they weren’t photos we shot ourselves for her marketing.  They were stock photos her ad agency had used to “save money.”  Worse, they weren’t rights managed stock photos, or even the standard royalty free stock photos, they were the cheap microstock photos.

Why does that make it more of a problem?  Because under a rights managed licensing system, you, the copyright holder and agency know if the images has been used before, and where the image has been used if it has.  You can decide if a conflict was created by prior use, and you can license rights that prevent the image from being used in a conflicting manner in the future.  Under the royalty free model, you have lost that protection.

Microstock takes is down a few more steps… into the garbage dump.  Not that you can’t find nice images on microstock if you are willing to spend the time sorting through the chaff, but they are licensed so cheaply and in such volume that you have NO control over where that image might appear.  And due to the dollar an image pricing model, many of those places could seriously harm your reputation (low reputation companies, trashy blogs, adult products and services, etc).  The high volume licensing also serves as a liability.  Microstock agencies and their contributors are unable to police illegal uses of the images as it is simply not economically viable to search the records for each use found and there are estimates that for each legitimate use of an image, there will be found dozens if not hundreds of illegal uses. In short, your marketing image could easily have been used by thousands, if not tens of thousands of other companies and individuals for any purpose.

I discussed this issue with both the client and the agency at the time they elected to use the stock images rather than doing a “custom” photoshoot.  They dismissed my argument (above) as self serving.  It may be, but it is also true, and they are now taking steps to do a shoot to replace the images, and, of course, re-create all of the marketing materials that the images were use in.  I don’t see the savings there.

The need to control where your image is used goes beyond stock photography.  It can seem to clients who are not old hands in the industry that the business practices of professional photographers are a “hassle” to them and we need to simply dismiss such “silly” things as registering our copyright and licensing our work.  Yet, it usually benefits the client more than the photographer that we hold the line and stick to professional business practices.

A well known architectural photographer I know told me her clients frequently object to her registering the copyright and licensing the images to them. They simply wish to have the images given to them without such encumbrances.  She points out to them that if she does not do so, then they have little to no recourse when someone steals the images for their own use.  How often does that happen?  With almost every client, she says, and each time she has worked with her attorneys get the offending images removed for the benefit of the client.

It may seem that cheap unencumbered images are a god send, but they are indeed the opposite.  While the current mantra is that it is good for you to let your images, copy and other materials be ripped off for the “exposure” you get, anyone who has worked hard to build a brand knows that is a major disaster in the making.

The best economy is to work with professionals who understand the risks and liabilities and follow business practices that will help you protect your investment and branding.  The photos you use in your marketing are your image, they are how the public perceives you.  You can’t afford to dilute it through loss of control.

Please !

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