The Hidden Dangers of Unlicensed Images: A Cautionary Tale

11th March 2024

Better watch out, the Royalty Free image feds are about! are you sure you know where your images come from? and in particular, if they are online? Ignorance isn't an excuse and worse; it could get very awkward if they have come from a client - It's a stitch-up!

So before you get a tap on the shoulder, who's the snitch! It's that pesky AI again, technology has caught up and it's taking names. If it's online you stand a good chance that your website will be scraped (I called it that, not sure if it's a thing!) by investigative agencies employing sophisticated image tracking technologies. So you could otherwise be unknowingly caught out by a third party and be very liable. It's not quite a fair cop!

Some context. Earlier this year we were contacted by a client asking for our thoughts on a problem they'd encountered. They were sent an invoice by a visual rights group on behalf of a well-known image bank, they wanted to establish if they had a licence for an image they were using on their website.

So how did it get to this? Our client works with a lot of public sector organisations, they support their work with case studies - a lot of them. As part of this process, they ask their clients for images. They were sent an image (it may have been originally purchased by their client, who knows!) to support a case study on our clients website. This simple act breaks the terms of the licence and is distributing an image and denying the photographer/agency fees. No doubt an innocent act resulted in our client being sent a notice and invoice for over £400.

Lessons learned? It's simple, if sent an image for use, whether as part of a blog, or a project for your use (see above), check with the third party or client that you are ok to use it - where did the image originate from? Of course, if you are using images for the client as part of a project, so designing a brochure, or website for the client you are ok to use them, it's their licence for their website etc. Just don't go holding onto it and use it for another client's promotional work. If your a designer of course, just an example!

How does this work in real life for us as a design agency? We are often asked to select images for a client but we then require our clients to purchase them. We can't acquire them on their behalf if they want ot use the images for other purposes. We hold the licence and can only use them in design work we create, we can't send the client the images for use elsewhere - this is distribution (again, see above); for example; we design a brochure but they want to use them on their website which is being designed by a web agency.

Another simple way of being caught out and it's something we see from time to time on brand identity projects when we receive assets from clients on projects, sometimes they will grab an image from someone else's website or a partner business website, generally resulting in a poor low-res image, and again it's distribution (finally, see above!).

To summarise:
1. Be alert to the origin of third-party images.
2. If you are asked to send images in support of a project, be aware you may be breaking the licence
3. It's illegal, it violates copyright law.
4. Be alive to the damage to reputation in that you could be called out by the original creator i.e. a very annoyed photographer!
5. There is a financial implication, ignorance is not bliss. Even if you mistakenly assume an image is free to use, you could still end up paying a hefty price. Copyright infringement claims can result in substantial financial settlements or court-ordered damages, draining your resources and impacting your bottom line. Moreover, the legal costs associated with defending
6. Ethical, beyond the financial. Respecting the intellectual property rights of creators is not only a legal obligation but also a matter of integrity and fairness. By ensuring you obtain the necessary licenses or permissions for the images you use, you contribute to a culture of respect for creative work and support the livelihoods of artists, designers, and photographers.

I can't lie, Chat GPT wrote this bit: In conclusion, the perils of not ensuring you're using licensed images in the UK are manifold. From legal liabilities and reputational damage to financial ramifications and ethical considerations, the consequences can be dire. Therefore, it's imperative to prioritise compliance with copyright laws and adopt best practices for sourcing and using images responsibly. Investing in licensed images not only mitigates risks but also demonstrates your commitment to upholding ethical standards and respecting the rights of content creators.

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