Shutterstock Guarantees Its Images as Industry Shifts

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In late October, stock photo agency Shutterstock, announced that it would provide its customers with legal indemnification for all works purchased through their service. This means that, should a photo purchased be fradulent and the purchaser is sued or threatened, iStock photo will cover up to $10,000 in damages and legal fees.

This follows about a month after iStockPhoto, which is owned by Getty Images, announced its plan to offer a similar indemnification service.

Obviously this is becoming a trend in the microstock community as companies begin to offer nervous buyers a guarantee that the images they are purchasing are legitimate and backing up that guarantee with money. Though, as I pointed out in my previous post, the money might not be enough to cover some lawsuits, it would be enough for most cases, especially if the matter were resolved quickly.

But all of this begs a question, why is this microstock industry suddenly taking up the banner of indemnification? I decided to pose the question directly to Shutterstock and see what they had to say.

Peace of Mind

In my earlier article on iStockPhoto, I hypothesized that the current legal climate surrounding stock photography, has made buyers uneasy about purchasing even from established stock photo agencies. The issue comes in part from unscrupulous agencies that do not adequate vet work and aggressive legal action, in particular from Getty images, against those who use their images with a proper license.

Shutterstock, however, seemed to downplay that. Saying that they had been looking into providing protection for “some time” and that it was aimed more at providing customers peace of mind than addressing any specific concern. According to their representative, the addition of the indemnification is also part of a larger shift in the stock photography community, including the shift to royalty-free licensing and greater use on the Web, both of which have had sharp impacts on the terms of use and customer needs.

According to Shutterstock, issues with their images are “exceedingly rare” and the most common issue involves a customer using an image in a way that is not compliant with their terms of service. For that reason, they recommend that users always read the terms of use closely when buying images and always attempt to buy from a reputable agency. To keep other kinds of infringement to a minimum, Shutterstock has a stringent review policy for new artists and requires both a legally-binding contract from the artist as well as model releases on all recognizable people, to prevent privacy issues from arising as well.

But as much sense as it makes that these legal changes are coming from larger changes in the industry, the fact that both iStockPhoto and Shutterstock saw fit to offer similar plans so close together, the biggest difference being that iStockPhoto offers $10,000 per file where Shutterstock is $10,000 per user, still raises eyebrows.

A Different Theory

Lee Torrens, who writes for the site Microstock Diaries, a blog for photographers selling their work on stock photo sites, has a different theory. According to Torrens, the move is likely a strike at Vivozoom, a stock photography agency that opened earlier this year, was the first to offer such indemnifications to its buyers, up to $25,000 per case. Vivozoom was built from the ground up to fill what it saw was a need in the industry.

Now the two largest players have fallen suit and offered their own indemnification plans, possibly a sign that Vivozoom struck a nerve with the industry.

Torrens also predicts that, most likely, we will see other photo agencies, including smaller ones, offer similar plans now that both iStockPhoto and Shutterstock have done so.

It will be interesting to see what is the case.

My Thoughts

In the past year alone, one stock photography agency has opened up with the specific benefit of offering indemnifcation and the two leaders have followed suit with their own, albeit smaller, plans. This is definitely a sign that something has changed in the industry and that indemnification is a feature that is ringing with customers of stock photos. Whether it is larger forced in the industry or customers are becoming wary about buying pictures on the Web, something clearly has changed in the past two years or so.

This ramp up in indemnification comes right after technology to detect matching images has really matured on the Web. Where, previously, a customer who bought a bad image from a stock photo agency would never be any the wiser, today, with the use services such as Tineye and Picscout, stock photo agencies and even amateur photogrpahers know when their work is being reused without permission and that means the scammed buyer now finds themselves on the receiving end of a cease and desist or, in the case of Getty, a demand for a multi-thousand dollar settlement.

If people are nervous about buying stock photos, especially from microstock sites, it is certainly understandable. While the risk of buying a bad image is low, as it always has been when dealing with reputable sites, the risk of getting “caught” when buying a bad image is not nearly as low as it was a few years ago.

A combination of unscrupulous sites, new detection technology and aggressive enforcement has made the climate very tense for buyers. Buyers want assurances that the agency will stand behind the images they sell and indemnification is the easiest way to provide that.

Bottom Line

In the end, the advice Shutterstock gave is easily the best you can get. Buy from reputable sites, read the terms of use and follow them. If you do that, the odds of you having an issue with a purchased stock image is very, very slim, with or without indemnification.

That being said, indemnification is always better to have than to not have. If you can get it and it is free, it’s always better to have the assurance than not. That being said, once again, make sure to read the requirements of the indemnification closely and learn what your responsibilities are in the event you are threatened. Most require you to notify the company within X number of days of receiving a threat and to turn your case over to them.

All in all, the critical thing is to be smart about your stock photo purchases and to not treat Google as a stock photo library or make purchases without checking out the company. A stock photo purchase can give you a great deal of a headache if you don’t do it properly and its worthwhile to be smart about where and how you buy.

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