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The High Cost of Free Images

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The High Cost of Free Images

What is your favourite free image website?

Pixabay.com? Maybe you just source your images from Google? What about Wikimedia Commons? In the digital age, there is a great demand for images, whether these are for your website, or to post on your blog or to send in when you submit a blog to a blogging site, or maybe just to post on social media.

If you get your images from the wrong site, it could literally end up costing you thousands of dollars.

Images on Google.

There is a misconception that images on Google (or other search engines) that do not claim copyright ownership are ‘free to use’. This is simply wrong. Someone owns the copyright. If you use an image from a search engine without permission, you are infringing that copyright. The copyright owner has every right to sue you for copyright infringement.

Perils of Pixabay.

The first time I heard about Pixabay.com I was presenting a workshop, confidently telling people that you shouldn’t use images from the Internet as there are no such things as ‘free image websites’. A Millennial waived his data-enabled mobile phone at me and said, “You are wrong! I use Pixabay.”

He called the site up on his mobile phone right in the middle of my workshop. Curious attendees gathered around as he read out snippets from the homepage which said, “Images on this site are free to use for any commercial purposes under Creative Commons license”.

Some of the attendees politely averted their gaze, while others were fascinated, convinced that they were just about to witness a car wreck. I had never heard of this particular free image website before and wondered if I had just made a fool of myself. I scrolled to the bottom of the page and as I had anticipated, in tiny letters was the word “Terms”.

One click through revealed that the website takes absolutely no responsibility for copyright in any of the images on its site. The small print says that if you use an image from their website, you may well be subject to copyright fees, or even be sued for copyright infringement.

Accordingly, you use this, and any other so-called ‘free image’ website at your peril.

What about royalty free?

Paid royalty free sites are generally safe. Royalty free means that you pay a one-off amount, often around $1. You then do not need to pay ongoing royalty fees. However, read the fine print, as some licences do require ongoing fees, such as annual renewal fees. Some also have restrictions on how you can use the images. For example, most do not allow editing of images.

Wikimedia Commons, a true Creative Commons licence.

Usually, when you use it from Wikimedia Commons, you have to attribute the photographer or the copyright owner. So, if you use my photo that I’ve uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, in your blog or your website, you need to say, “Photographer, Cathryn Warburton.” You can’t just use it without following the requirements of that particular license.

It is important to understand that there are different types of Creative Commons licenses, which may have different requirements. Again, it is vital to read the small print.

Are Canva free images really free?

Well, the one that is safe is Canva. The free ones are used to entice you to purchase better images on Canva. The free images are generally not great and are part of Canva’s sales ploy. Canva is really the only site that I have discovered where images that claim to be free are genuinely free to use for commercial purposes, including use on websites and blogs.

Why should you care? No-one will ever know if you nick the odd image, will they?

Actually, Getty Images owns (or has the rights to licence) copyright in millions of images worldwide. It is widely believed that they have created a search engine that works tirelessly to match images in its own database with online images. This is how they can find an image that you used without permission, even if it is on a site that is now archived.

If they believe you have infringed their copyright, you will receive a letter of demand for copyright infringement, which will generally include the demand for payment of copyright licensing fees. Recently, most demands that I have seen sent on behalf of Getty images by debt collector firm Dunn & Bradstreet have been for $1500 or more per image.

Signing up to a ‘dollar an image’ licensing site is a much less costly option and could save you thousands of dollars and plenty of stress.

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