No one likes to receive an unexpected bill for £1,200 but that’s what happened last week to someone in a business Facebook group I belong to.

The invoice came from one of the big stock photography companies for the use of 3 images. He was understandably outraged. He didn’t know the student who updated his website had used photos that were subject to copyright. “They should have had a copyright notice printed across them,” he wrote.  “How was I supposed to know without that? And why are they charging me £400 each when I can buy photos like that for £1??”

Unfortunately he’s not alone. I’ve seen similar stories many times before. A lot of people, like the student this business owner employed, assume that if a photo’s been posted to the Internet without a copyright notice on it, it’s OK for them to use. But that’s not the case. You have to assume that every photo is subject to copyright unless explicitly stated otherwise.

Stock photography companies and independent photographers do search for images that are being used without permission and they do bill the companies that are using them.

As for the £1200 fee, the stock photography company has no way of knowing what size of image file you’ve got. All they know is that you’ve used one of their photos without permission. I guess they’ve invoiced him for use of the full size high resolution image, which can easily be £400+ per image. Some companies will add an extra fee for copyright infringement or even take you to court, so he’s lucky his bill wasn’t higher.

So if you don’t want to be faced with a big copyright bill out of the blue what can you do?  The answer is simple:

Make sure any photos you use for your business are correctly licensed. And if someone else creates materials for you, ask how they licensed the images they used.  

That applies to printed materials as well as websites, adverts, blog posts and social media updates.

Professional graphic designers, website designers and social media managers should all be aware of copyright law.  If they haven’t included a line on your invoice for image licences

  • They may be paying a monthly subscription to an image library that permits them to use the library’s photos for their clients
  • They may have budgeted for licensing photos for you in with their other fees
  • They may have sourced images which are free – e.g. ones supplied under a Creative Commons licence that permits commercial use. (Not all Creative Commons licences allow you to use material for your business, so do read the licence carefully).

If you’re not sure, do ask and get the answer in writing so if you’re ever challenged in future, you’ve got evidence.

(UPDATE: After reading Kerry’s story in the comments below, you need to ask for copies of the licences.)

Alternatively, you can take your own photos or get a professional photographer like me to take create a custom image library for you. You’ll find that costs a lot less than £400 each. (My commercial photography sessions start from £135 including several images with copyright licences.)

Using custom photos has the other advantage that they’re unique to your business which helps to reinforce your brand.

If you’d like me to create some custom photos for you or teach you how to take your own, get in touch.

And if you’d like to understand more about copyright law for photography in the UK, there’s a great document on the website that explains it in plain English.


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