The Secret Side of Stock Photography

If you are a professional photographer, a visual artist or even simply have a Flickr account, you need to read this article. This issue may directly affect you.

The problem is relatively straightforward. Legitimate sites often attract unscrupulous users that twist a function system in unforeseen ways. This leaves site owners to find ways to deal with the trouble-causing minority while seeking to grow their business.

Some sites handle this well, others do not. Nowhere, sadly, is that more evident than in the world of stock photography.

The Story So Far

Though most of the users on stock photography sites are legitimate photographers looking too make some extra money, a reader of this site recently discovered one on iStockphoto who was not. Specifically, the member had used at least one image from the reader and had been selling it actively on the site.

The image had been selling quite well, generating 48 downloads. This means that the work had generated at least nine dollars for the plagiarist (minimum one dollar per download multiplied by the 20% royalty) and possibly many times more (including well over $100 depending on the kinds of downloads).

All of this, for no work other than creating an account and uploading a saved image.

When the reader in question contacted iStockphoto about the image, the work was removed immediately. iStockphoto also shut down the user’s account, though he reappeared shortly thereafter, and sent refunds to the 48 people who bought the photo, also informing them that it could not be used. There was no word as to whether or not the plagiarist was able to keep his or her royalty on the sales.

Though the incident seemed to be mostly resolved, other than unanswered questions about reparations for the damage done to the work before the infringement was discovered, it leaves questions about whether other photographers and artists might be at risk and what happens when the work isn’t discovered on the stock photography site, but rather, the site of the person who thought they legitimately purchased the work.

Issues for Photographers

For photographers posting their works online, the problems pile up quickly.

First, many artistic photographers pride themselves on not selling their work for commercial use. Since stock photos can appear in advertisements, brochures and more, it’s possible that a plagiarist could damage a photographer’s reputation by commercializing his or her work in front of a very large audience.

Second, if the work appears in a generally trustworthy source, such as a Web site for a major company, plagiarism accusations can be directed at the photographer.

Third, even if the photographer does want to sell his works for commercial purposes, he is now denied at least some of the opportunity to do so. The market for his work has been hopeless tainted and, if he had desired to sell it exclusively to a third party, the odds of that are very slim.

Finally, if the photo contained any images of models or other people, severe legal issues could be raised around misappropriation of image. Models who agreed to have their photo used for noncommercial purposes might be very upset should they discover their faces being plastered all over Web sites and advertisements. They might approach or even sue the photographer, unaware that the work was stolen.

Issues for Buyers

However, the issues don’t stop at the photographers or the stock photography site, but are passed on to the buyer.

Though it is unlikely that a buyer could be held liable for an infringement given that they bought the work under a license that allowed such use, they might be the recipient of a cease and desist letter or even a lawsuit as the photographer, likely, would be unaware of stock photograph Web site’s role beforehand.

Second, buyers risk losing a critical element of their site, advertising campaign or whatever they bought the image for. After all, once the infringement has been discovered and pointed out to them, they would most likely need to remove it expeditiously to avoid problems. Though they can’t be held liable for infringement up to that point, once informed, their case becomes less clear.

This can be especially troubling if the work has been used for some time and is very critical to the person or company. They might have to negotiate a new, likely more expensive, contract with the photographer to maintain continuity.

It can wind up being a tremendous headache for buyers should things go wrong.


Though it is the type of thing that keeps photographers and artists, especially anti-commercial ones, up at night. It is something that can be largely prevented.

Photographers wanting to avoid this problem should take the following steps:

  1. Never Publish Large High-Resolution Images: Since most monitors have resolutions between 72 DPI and 95 DPI, scanning and posting images at a higher resolution is not just a waste of file size, but a potential risk for plagiarism. Larger high-resolution images are ideal for use in stock photography sites because they can be printed up in large sizes and thus fetch more money. If you aren’t selling your work, it’s best to limit the resolution to under 100 and keep the image itself scaled fairly small. It may not prevent other sites from using it, but it will keep it out of printed material.
  2. Watermark Carefully: With free batch watermarking programs widely available (see the lite version), there’s little reason to post images to the Web without some form of watermark. By adjusting the opacity on the mark, it’s possible to make it almost invisible to a viewer, but useless as a stock photo since such sites require perfectly clear and unmarked images.
  3. Use Metadata: Some stock photography sites read and even post the EXIF data contained in a JPG image. Consider using software to edit EXIF data so that you can identify the work as your own and post a clear copyright notice. This can help sites both identify you as the author and, potentially, let buyers know that they have purchased suspect goods.

For while the idea of having your photos being sold far and wide as stock photographs can be intimidating for amateur and professional photographers like, it’s something that can be dealt with and prevented before it happens.

All one has to do is take some reasonable precautions.


The problem does not lie so much with the industry itself, but with the practices of a few people.

Still, it would be nice to see the industry take a few extra precautions. Technology to match photographs on the Web already exist and could, theoretically, be used to scan incoming images for duplication. Since stock photography sites are seeking original and unique content, it makes sense to use it, if for no other reason than to ensure that customers get what they pay for.

After all, iStockphoto likely lost 48 customers that day and it seems as if it is in everyone’s best interest to ensure that the images for sale are all legitimate.

In the meantime though, artists and photographers need to consider taking preventive measures to stop this type of misuse before it happens.

All in all, it is probably the most dangerous kinds of plagiarism, selling works, spreading them far and wide and giving away rights that the original artist likely never would have on his or her own. It can do incredible damage to the reputation of the photographer, the marketability of the works involved and even the buyer.

It’s one that every photographer needs to be on the lookout for.

Note: A letter to iStockphoto regarding this matter was sent over 24 hours ago and has not been returned.


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