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Photo Usage, Copyright Infringement and You – How Not to Be a Thieving D-bag (Part 1)

by Simon on May 19, 2013

Photo of a plate of gnocchi and beefImage courtesy of Finger, Fork & Knife

This is not my photo. Actually none of the photos in this post are my own. Almost every image was sourced from the Internet, downloaded directly from a website, modified to suit my needs and then uploaded to my blog for this post, all without costing me a cent.

However, unlike many others, I did so while respecting the rights of the copyright holder. Unlike a lot of them, I am not a copyright-infringing, photo-thieving douche bag.

To be fair, a lot of people who infringe on other people’s copyright don’t intend to be thieving douche bags either and likely do so out of ignorance or due to misconceptions they hold. The thing is, it’s not hard to get access to photos for free in a way that is both legally and morally right.

Photo of an espresso machine making coffee.

Image courtesy of Abstract Gourmet

There are generally two ways of getting access to photos for free:

  • Requesting permission from the owner directly
  • By usage rights granted by certain copyright licenses

This post, Part 1 of a two part series, will examine the topic of requesting permission directly from the copyright owner.

Misconceptions

Before we begin, it might be prudent to touch on some of the misconceptions regarding the copyright of a photo. This article on the top 9 misconceptions about image copyright does a good job covering the major misconceptions that most people hold.

One common misconception from the list I see quite often is that people believe that if they give you credit for your image (with or without a clickable link) or your watermark is clearly visible on your image then they don’t need to seek your permission to use the photo. As the article states “While this is a nice gesture…it doesn’t release you from liability under copyright laws”.

A good rule of thumb to follow is if there isn’t a license clearly stating your usage rights or you don’t have permission from the owner, then the photo is not available for use. While this doesn’t apply in all cases e.g. fair use, if you’re uncertain of whether or not you have permission to use the photo, it never hurts to ask.

Photo of a breakfast plate

Image courtesy of talk&spoon

Requesting Permission

I received an email one morning from a photo editor looking to use some of my photos for their online publication. In exchange, they offered credit for the photo and a link back to my blog. After checking out their website, I was happy to give them permission to use these photos. A few emails were sent back and forth but in about a day after the original email was sent, they had my photos up on their site. All it had cost them was time to write three emails.

Three emails doesn’t seem like much but there was probably more work involved having to find the images, contact other people and so forth. As to how much time and effort that would all require, I had no idea. So, I decided to take a walk in their shoes to find out for myself.

With the help of some blog lists, around 30 blogs were examined for possible photos to use. To minimise bias, blogs of people I knew were off-limits as they may be more inclined to give permission than to someone they don’t know.

From the 30 blogs, 10 images were selected for use. Each of the blogs were checked for licenses and usage right statement and of the blogs that didn’t automatically grant usage rights, the remaining bloggers were contacted via email. In the instance that a response wasn’t received, a reminder email was sent in case it was missed the first time around.

Some things to note regarding my experience of requesting permission to use other people’s photos:

  • The whole process, from search for photos until the first round of emails were sent, had taken a little over 2 hours, out of which only 20 mins was spent on emails.
  • Permission of use was granted for 9 out of 10 images
    • 7 of these images were granted permission within a day – 2 immediately through licenses and 5 via email.
    • The remaining 2 were granted permission after a reminder email was sent.
  • 100% of the people that responded gave permission to use their photos once they understood the purpose of the article and the context in which the photo was to be used.
  • Only 1 person did not respond. However, after checking their blog, it looks like they’ve been inactive for a couple of years anyhow.

Photo of a bar

Image courtesy of The Lamstock

Two hours of work to have access to use seven photos within a 24 hours period with a high response rate in exchange for a photo credit with link back and no money. That’s a pretty good deal given the kind of quality photos you could potentially have access to. Not only that, by taking the time to make contact and showing respect for someone’s work, you could start to build an ongoing, mutually-beneficial relationship.

If two hours seems like a long time, bear in mind that the photographer who produced that photo had likely spent considerably more time in the production of the photo – travel to the venue or setup of the studio, taking the photo and processing the images. That’s not even factoring in the skill and expertise required to take such a photo, let alone the cost of the photography gear, lighting, transportation, food, props etc.

If that still doesn’t sway you and you’d rather not to take the time to seek permission, think instead of the potential time spent dealing with takedown requests, social media backlash, or in a worst case scenario, going to court over the matter. A couple of hours starts to sound cheap by comparison.

Photo of grilled corn

Image courtesy of Sweet and Sour Fork

Tips

Based on my experience on both sides of the fence, here are a few tips that might help you save some time and get you access to the photos you’re after:

- Check the About page and sidebar of the blog. You might find that you may already have permission to use the photos (given certain conditions are met) without the need to contact the owner. More on this in Part 2.

- While you’re there, if you’re able to find the person’s name, it helps to address the email to them personally rather than using something generic like “Hi” without the name, or worse still “Hey blogger”. I don’t think you’d appreciate it if they’d responded back with “Hi PR” or “Dear Photo Editor”, if they bothered to respond at all.

- To minimise the number of emails sent back and forth, be clear on:

  • Which photo(s) you wish to use and from which article/post (link would be handy).
  • What the intended use of the photo is, such as the contents of the article or page and the context in which the photo is to be used. This one is particularly important as most of the people I contacted wanted to know this information and did not grant permission until it was made clear.
  • Specify any requirements you might have e.g. minimum resolution size, include/exclude watermarks etc.
  • What you’re willing to offer in exchange for the use of their photos. At the very least it should include attribution (credit) for the photo as well as a clickable link back to their blog.

- Don’t pitch the email like you’re doing us a favour. You’re not.

- Lastly, if you do not receive a response after a reminder email, assume that you do not have permission to use the photo.

I hope that this post helps to illustrate that the barriers in obtaining access to good quality photos may not be as high as you might have thought and that not a lot of time and effort is required in order to do so.

If you feel that contacting the owner for permission is still too much effort, make sure to check out Part 2 in this series which will explore Creative Commons licenses and how you can obtain free photos in a legal and moral way without the need for prior contact.

Special thanks to Kate, Matt, Ellen, Brenda and Ming for giving permission to use your photos for this post.

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