When it comes to copyright, the photography space has been especially fraught with litigation and legal threats over the past decade plus.
Getty Images, along with several other stock photography companies, engaged in a massive copyright campaign that began in the 2000s. The campaign was so prevalent that, in April 2011, Getty Images purchased the image location service PicScout.
More recently, celebrities are finding themselves repeatedly sued for uploading images of themselves to Instagram, That trend continues today as Justin Bieber was just sued by a photographer in late March.
Finally, one attorney, Richard Liebowitz, became such a prolific filer of lawsuits on behalf of photographers that he earned a reputation as a copyright troll and was eventually suspended from practicing law over issues of misconduct.
It’s a grim landscape. Photographers are frustrated with rampant misuse of their images, often times for wholly commercial purposes. On the other side, users and websites are repeatedly hit with surprise notices of infringement and demands to pay $1,000 or more for the alleged infringement.
However, the stock photo service Dreamstime is hoping to change that. They are launching a new copyright infringement tracking tool, dubbed LicenseGuard, that they hope will break this cycle and result in a better-educated internet.
How LicenseGuard Works
From a technical standpoint, LicenseGuard is fairly straightforward. According to their press release, LicenseGuard searches the internet looking for Dreamstime user images that are not licensed.
Once such instances are detected, they are flagged for the user to consider what, if any, action to take.
However, that follow-up action is where LicenseGuard separates itself. Similar services such as PicScout, Pixsy, CopyTrack and PhotoClaim, focus heavily on trying to get sizeable settlements out of suspected infringers. LicenseGuard, on the other hand, aims to be more educational in nature.
Rather than sending a demand for settlement, LicenseGuard offers a special version of their regular stock image license that covers post-usage permission.
In short, the goal of the service is not to threaten users with litigation, but to bring them on as legitimate customers and provide education about best practices.
However, this is not to mean that litigation is completely off the table. In an email exchange, a representative from the company, Corina Dan, said that the company will consider pursuing legal action against repeat infringers or those that simply ignore their warnings.
In their press release, they further highlighted the new copyright small claims court as a potential tool in this space. However, in both cases, that is a final step, not a preliminary one and a step that will only be used when completely necessary.
To make matters more enticing for users, Dan also highlighted the royalty rates for LicenseGuard. Those rates will be much higher than with other companies, 50% for non-exclusive images and 60% for exclusive images.
The service is available for free to all users of Dreamstime. This automatically brings in some 875,000 contributors and 185 million images into the system.
In short, it’s likely that we are going to see these letters sooner rather than later.
A Softer Touch
The goal of the approach is to avoid creating an adversarial relationship with suspected infringers, but rather, to educate them on proper licensing and make easy for them to become legitimate customers.
The reason for this approach, according to Dreamstime, is because most of the infringements they see are accidental. Examples can include people who purchased themes that used stock images, individuals who don’t understand copyright law, and those that did not understand the license.
These are, theoretically, people that could be turned into ideal long-term customers for stock photography websites. However, the current approach is very adversarial and can drive many of them away from the industry.
However, this approach has been tried in the past. Many photographers, including many that went on to more aggressive tactics, have tried using a gentler hand. The reason for abandoning it was that the money received did not justify the time spent on the project. Photographers would routinely report spending dozens of hours on a single case, only to receive a small license fee in the end.
The hope is that Dreamstime has automated this process enough that it is practical for both them and their users. From the users’ perspective, this is largely extra income. This is a free and relatively hands-off way to seek licenses from infringers.
If it does work well for all involved, it could be a paradigm shift in thought about copyright enforcement and photography, offering an alternative to a decade plus of aggressive litigation and legal threats.
There are few types of creators that have faced more copyright challenges than photographers.
The ease with which their work is shared has created an internet that is strangely ambivalent about images. People who wouldn’t pirate movies or songs often don’t think twice before posting an image publicly.
There’s no easy solution to this problem. Mass legal threats and mass litigation may have raised awareness and helped some photographers recoup their costs, it also created a great deal of hostility and animosity.
Will Dreamstime’s approach work? It’s impossible to know. However, it’s worth trying. This is a field where something has to change, and it’s nice to see a major player taking a different approach.
This will definitely be something to watch over the coming months and years. It will be interesting to see if this approach pays off and in what ways.