Design for Small Business: Using Stock Photography

Some enterprising business owners shoot their own products; others hire photographers or find existing images that fit a given subject. How do you determine which option is right for your next business promotion?
Whether or not to hire a photographer has always been a question of necessity and budget. While in some cases (think product introduction), shooting original images is unavoidable, an overwhelming majority of images used in both print and online marketing materials are what is referred to as ‘stock’ photos that depict common lifestyle and business situations, produced for the specific purpose of licensing them to advertisers for a fee. 
Using stock photography is an easier, faster and substantially more cost-effective alternative than hiring a photographer for a shoot, but it is not without its perils. Some business owners have found out the hard way that copying an image from someone’s website and using it online and in print can lead to troubles ranging from poor printing quality to a copyright or trademark infringement lawsuit. Yet the process of sourcing images does not have to be complicated as long as you have a basic understanding of the legal and technical issues involved.
Image copyright basics
The most common problem SME owners and executives face when looking for suitable photographs is not understanding image ownership — or, more precisely, the copyright laws governing reuse of existing images.
Without getting into a protracted and needlessly complex legal discussion, the oversimplified principle to remember is that images are someone else’s intellectual property and cannot be used without obtaining the copyright holder’s permission and abiding by the negotiated terms of image use.
The latter is commonly referred to as a license, which spells out compensation, duration of use, and other such criteria negotiated between image buyer and owner in much the same fashion as any other business transaction.
Locating the image owner and securing permission is an absolute must, because using the image without a clear license to do so constitutes copyright infringement with very few exceptions. (Such exceptions pertain to personal, fair use, educational, non-commercial, and other very niche image uses, none of which apply to a business environment where all uses are considered commercial — even if the advertiser is a not-for-profit concern.)
If sued for copyright infringement, a business using an unlicensed image may be liable for paying the copyright owner a sum that includes multiples of the original license fee plus attorney’s fees and damages that can seem astronomical by comparison.
For example, in a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by Canadian stock photography company, Masterfile, US-based printing company, FastImage was ordered to pay Masterfile close to £400,000 for the unauthorised use of 20 Masterfile images throughout FastImage’s Web site.  The copyright to the images had been registered at the US Copyright Office, enabling Masterfile to claim ‘statutory damages’ under US copyright law.
Search Engines and Photo-Sharing Web Sites
Given the necessity of dealing directly with the copyright owner, using a search engine to find a photo of a scrumptious cake that wholly embodies your bakery can be problematic. Google Images will certainly find thousands of photos, but it generally does not provide any information about who owns the image or how to contact them. 
There are some services that can help bridge this information gap. Image-to-image search engine TinEye can help find all instances of the same image appearing online after you upload an original, but you would still have to review each link found by TinEye and determine whether or not it offers the ownership and contact information you seek.
An in-beta browser plug-in called ImageExchange comes closer by identifying licensable stock images among search-engine results and offering contact information for the photographer or agency that owns the image. Still, finding legally usable stock using a search engine remains a cumbersome process.
A photo-sharing website like Flickr can instantly connect you to a photographer; however, negotiating directly with Flickr users brings another set of issues, which typically stem from the photo-sharing community being largely a non-professional forum. Someone using Flickr to share family photos may ignore or refuse a request to license one of his or her images.
The technical quality of the photo may not be sufficient for all uses; it is quite common for Flickr-displayed images to be too small to be reproduced in print. And it is plain rare for a Flickr-hosted image to have the requisite legal releases — such as, for example, a model release, which is an agreement executed by a professional photographers and a person who allows the use of his or her likeness for commercial purposes. 
Pricing and licensing terms for images found via search engines and photo-sharing sites will vary greatly, and any comparison shopping will require finding several different sources for similar images, greatly increasing the amount of work you would have to put in to settle on the final photo for your project. 
The stock agency benefit
Given the difficulty involved in locating suitable images through online sources, it is easy to see the reasons behind explosive growth of specialised stock photography agencies in recent years. 
Most importantly, images available through stock-image companies, such as iStockphoto, its parent company Getty Images and others, have been pre-cleared by agency staff for typical copyright and technical issues. All are available for instant download in various resolutions, under clear licensing terms and with appropriate model and property releases, instantly eliminating the most common issues.
There are also numerous other benefits. Using a stock agency makes it easy to compare different creative executions of the same concept, because an agency offers work by numerous photographers in one location, keyworded and categorised specifically to make it easy for a buyer to locate and compare different images of the same subject matter. The ability to comparison-shop on one website speeds up the overall process: whereas it can take days or weeks to complete one image transaction that started on a search engine, using a stock site can reduce this process to mere minutes. 
When using stock agencies, bear in mind that not all are created equal. The quality of an agency’s search engine and available additional tools can greatly improve an image buyer’s search experience. For example, iStockphoto offers users several unique features. One is CopySpace, which finds images that contain space for text in a particular location within a photo’s overall composition. 
The iStock search engine also provides a localised experience, enabling UK users to view images that are uniquely applicable to their local context—and entirely different from images seen by users from Germany, the US or elsewhere. 
Whichever website you prefer, using a stock agency can greatly simplify the image-sourcing process. Some stock agencies can also help you integrate and get the most out of using sound, video and Flash files, which have long been the domain of big-budget advertisers and have only recently become accessible to SMEs.
If you have further questions or concerns about image use, please visit the very educational, set up by Getty Images for the benef
it of the photographic industry and its customers, with the support of BAPLA (British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies) and PACA (Picture Archive Council of America).
Stay tuned for future installments of iStock “Design for Small Business” to take the mystery out of interactive communications.