The $3.5 Million Risk of Using Stock Photography

By George Khoury, Esq. on July 10, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

For businesses and law firms, using stock photography can be both a blessing and a curse. While businesses can often find high quality and creative images to use for free, they can also end up accidentally violating an artist's copyright and having to pay out millions.

Stock photography websites can often get it wrong, or have images available that the sites don't actually have the rights to sell. This means that a business could very well violate the copyrights of artists by doing so, despite the good intentions behind using free stock photography (rather than just stealing images). And if you don't think this actually happens, then ask the United States Postmaster General (or just keep reading).

A Sculptor's Statutory Statue Saga

Recently, the USPS was ordered to pay out $3.5 million for using what they believed was just a stock image for the Statue of Liberty forever stamp that was issued in 2010.

Unfortunately, and embarrassingly, for the USPS, that stock image was not actually a picture of the Statue of Liberty, but rather was a picture of an artist's sculpture depicting a more modern, and half-size, Statue of Liberty for Las Vegas's New York-New York hotel. Taking a look at the side-by-side, scrolling, image on USA Today, it's pretty clear that a simple Google image search would have given USPS's in house attorneys pause.

Within a few short months, and before the gaff was realized, the USPS had already printed 3 billion stamps with the "sultry, fresh-faced, and sexier" Lady Liberty. And at the end of the day, USPS cleared $70 million in profit from the stamp sale (less the $3.5 million it just lost to the artist in the copyright infringement case), which the artist believes is partly due to his amazing sculpture.

How to Use Stock Photography?

Using stock photography can be a good, and economical, idea, but you may want to consider taking a few extra steps to make sure you don't pull a USPS.

1. Only use reputable stock photography websites.
2. Consider buying rather than licensing images (especially ones you plan to repeatedly use).
3. Consider hiring a photographer to create images for you that you own the copyrights to.
4. If you're going to use any stock photography, run a Google image search first to make sure the site you're buying from actually holds the rights.
5. Exercise common sense, and ask yourself: Will using this stock image lead to major embarrassment and a lawsuit?

If you have more questions about using stock photography, check out some of the related resources below.

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