How to Use a Photo and Not Get Sued

Photography is everywhere. We see it in billboards, on our walls, our screens, our phones. It's so entrenched in our environment and our culture we don't spend much time thinking about it, specifically the ownership rights of the photos we're using. Enter risk. While photography is ubiquitous, it is not exempt from laws and regulations. It's super important for companies to be informed on the legal aspect of using someone else's images.

The first thing to know is the difference between editorial and commercial intent. This is important because the cost and legal requirements will be very different depending on how you are using the photos. Using a photo for editorial purposes means the image is published to inform the community. This could be a news article, blog, textbook, documentary. On the other hand, commercial purpose is using an image to promote something or someone, i.e. print and digital ads, brochures, commercial websites, etc. Usually areas that help the company make money. The big thing to remember is if you are using something for commercial use, you MUST have a signed model release form. Without proof of consent, the model can potentially sue the company for exploitation. This is not necessary if the photo is being used editorially. 

The next order of business is creating an appropriate licensing agreement with the photographer. This is a bit more complicated and, again, depends on how the images are being used. The two critical factors to consider here are duration and scope. How long do you want to use the photos for and in what aspect do you want to use them? A photo used once on a company's website will not cost nearly as much as a photo used multiple times over many years for a national marketing campaign. The broader the scope, the greater the price. You can also choose to buy the image outright and be cleared of any limitations on use. In the end, licensing is very negotiable and agreements depend on the scenario. Just be sure an agreement is in place before using the images.

Frequently where clients go wrong is in poor education. Most people are unaware of photo ownership rights and use photos outside of an agreement without even realizing it. A lot of times, companies will put all their images in a database where they are up for grabs by staff. This happened when Adam photographed a product for a non profit company for editorial use. A designer found the photo in the company's database, and decided to use it for a blog post and also on the "About Us" page of their website. This started heading into commercial territory, so Adam sent a friendly email to the director. The director promptly apologized and began licensing the photo for commercial use. 

Licensing transgressions usually stem from ignorance, not malintent. It's incredibly important to be well informed, especially as society becomes more and more focused on the visual. If you have any questions about photo ownership rights, staff at Bird+Bird Studio are always open to answering questions over the phone, email, or any of our social media outlets.


A few examples of commercial use photographs: