Rebecca Swift, head of creative planning at iStockphoto, details the simple steps you need to take clients through to avoid them demanding you 'use a photo off Google'.

There are a number of misconceptions surrounding image copyright.  While it is generally assumed that the majority of UK internet users know the rules when it comes to downloading music and video content, image copyright seems to be a different kettle of fish.  As creatives, you most likely understand all the rules and regulations, but it is becoming increasingly clear that many of your clients either don't know how this works, or choose to ignore these issues to save money.

This can result in awkward conversations, a bad reputation or even fines and legal action.  So how do you educate clients so that you can play by the rules, while not losing any of those valuable billings?

One of the more common misconceptions about visual content is a tendency to believe that if a photo is published online, it is free to use.  However, clients need to understand that no matter where they are posted, images remain bound by copyright.  It is exactly the same rule that applies to music: if you want to use a Beatles track to promote your business, you need to have permission to do so.  Finding the track online does not automatically give you the right to use it commercially and the same goes for images and video.

Often, simple education is all it takes, informing them that they must obtain the consent of either the author of the image, or – when the license agreement of the social network allows it – the administrator of the website.

5 ways to explain copyright

The first thing to do is make sure you lay out all the rules at the start of the relationship. By likening image copyright to high profile cases, especially those of music or video – such as the closure of the original iteration of Napster at the turn of the century or the lawsuit by Hollywood studios against film piracy last year – these issues can seem all the more real to brands, especially when their reputation is on the line.

Although budgets are tight for many brands and agencies alike at present, clients will appreciate a bit of extra budget put aside at the start of a campaign for assets, far more than an expensive fine or lengthy lawsuit. 

Some of the rules that even creatives and designers may be unsure of are around image licenses.  Users must make sure that they have the correct type of licenses for images. For example, Apple was recently sued by a Swiss photographer for using an image commercially – ie for purposes that were not previously agreed.  Whether this was an error by an individual within Apple itself or from an external agency is unclear, but it seems that nobody involved checked, or even thought about the different rules that govern imagery.

Rights-managed images typically hold restrictions on duration of use, geographic location or industry, but by buying royalty-free images, small businesses and marketers can be sure that they are not breaching copyright.  For more information and to help clients unravel the complexities of image rights, sites such as Stockphotorights.com can be useful.

Copyright law is there to protect a photographer’s images and to prevent others taking the credit for their hard work.

If none of the above tips have worked, appeal to their professional side:

How would they like it if somebody stole one of their ideas, strategies or documents and packaged it up as their own? Taking images, music or video is no different.

Rebecca Swift

It doesn't help matters when media outlets flout – or at least push the boundaries of – these rules.  For example, after the London helicopter crash in January, in a media first, a number of major media outlets used a photo taken by Craig Jenner and posted to his Twitter feed on their front pages and websites.

The Evening Standard – the first outlet to use the image in print – admitted it had taken the photo from Twitter and that it would reimburse the owner. However, technically by not seeking permission first, the paper broke the law and set a bad example.  Although the images were in the public domain, and under Twitter’s terms of service they can be used by Twitter, it was not legal for anyone other than the owner to use them.

With an increase in interesting assets for creatives to use on social networks, it is often a tempting way to save money, thinking that nobody will ever notice.  However, there is a plethora of image software that can track images that originate from larger media companies, and with the ability for anything to go viral, it is too big a risk to take – especially when it could mean losing a big client, or your job in the long-term.

The photography industry is now stepping up its right to salvage the situation and claim their rights, and it is important that creatives, agencies and have the right information on how to access content that is affordable, helping them avoid the pitfalls of image copyright.