Stock Photos: A Fool’s Game?

So, you’ve carefully crafted your message and are searching for just the right image to complement your prose. If you’re like most, you’ll turn to one of the many stock photo houses where you can pay anywhere from nothing to thousands of dollars for the perfect image. But, even after you pay, how can you be certain you have the right to use the image you’ve purchased? You can’t. And that’s a problem.

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Philadelphia Public Mural photo by Carol Highsmith

Getty Images says I have to pay them to use this image. Carol Highsmith, who took the photo, and the U.S. Library of Congress, to whom she donated the photo (along with 100,000 others), say I do not. I await their demand letter.

Getty Images, perhaps the best known of the stock photo shops, is, for the second time in three years, accused of selling photos without the owner’s permission or knowledge. In simple terms, they are selling stolen property. Even worse, they have attempted to extort money from the photographer for posting her own work. It’s the protection racket brought to the digital age.

American photographer Carol Highsmith has spent her life documenting her country. She has photographed landscapes, architecture and people in all 50 states of the union. And, in what C. Ford Peatross, director of the Center for Architecture at the Library of Congress, calls “one of the greatest acts of generosity in the history of the Library of Congress”, she has donated her life’s work to the library – more than 100,000 images. Getty has misappropriated over 18,000 of these images, charging unsuspecting consumers for “a license” to display these pictures, and sending spurious demand letters in an attempt to extort money from those who would dare exercise their right to share Ms. Highsmith’s generous gift.

One can only hope that Ms. Highsmith’s billion dollar plus lawsuit convinces Getty and it’s ilk to behave honourably but I’m not holding my breath.

Cavan Kelly

Cavan began building SOL-20's in 1977 and was hooked. Over then ensuing 40 years he has been a technology evangelist/strategist/realist at some of Canada's largest companies. For the past 17 years, he has worked solely to bring real world IT services to smaller organizations.

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