Balancing Image Licensing with a Post-Pandemic Brand Refresh

After a year-and-a-half of unprecedented challenges for small business owners (or truly, any business, organization, institution…), the light at the end of the tunnel is becoming more visible. This means it’s also the perfect time to reassess marketing strategies and refresh assets and make sure you’re adhering to licensing laws so you can keep things on the up-and-up.

Small business copyright laws are complex, vary by region and don’t always sync with the challenges of modern media usage. AW360 sat down with Brad Ralph, Senior Director of Content Development at Getty Images, to talk about his experience as the founder of and share some of his hard-earned insights as to how small businesses can keep in step with copyright laws and protect creators’ rights.


Twenty years ago, you and your iStock co-founders set out to help your fellow small business owners not only source creative imagery but license it in an affordable way to avoid copyright issues. Why do you believe small business owners, creatives and entrepreneurs still fall victim to the “right-click and save” conundrum or opt to download imagery from sites of questionable reputation?

First, I feel like there is still a bit of a hangover from the early days of the internet, where the perception was that anything out on the web was public domain—essentially if it’s not specifically called out as copyright protected, and that famous “right click and save” functionality works—that somehow the image owner “must not care.” “Fair use” and “public domain” are terms that get thrown around a lot, but very few understand how those terms are applied when it comes to copyright. This raises the subject of the copyright laws themselves which are complex, vary by region, and most often drafted to cover topics long before the digital era.

If governing bodies haven’t managed to keep in stride with the challenges of modern media use, how are average consumers and business owners—often operating on small budgets and increasingly doing everything from marketing to social media in-house—supposed to understand these laws and their nuances? I have yet to hear of a good Udemy or Online learning course that covers digital image copyright and licensing for business owners in a simplified way, easily understandable way.

The last piece of this puzzle relates directly to the fact that businesses are becoming more self-reliant when it comes to their brand and marketing projects. Today’s businesses have access to tools like WIX, Squarespace and the like to build and manage their own web presence. Sites like Canva provide layout tools and creative resources to produce web ads, print material and social media posts that you can export and launch easily. Where once you would need to hire an agency or creative team to build your website (likely someone who understand image licensing well), or manage your brand, more and more of this work is in the hands of individuals and businesses for whom this isn’t part of their day-to-day—and they may not have access to the expert advice of a creative director or account manager.

This can create legal hurdles down the line, although many may not even be aware of the risk. Can you describe what you’re seeing as the biggest reason small business owners may fail to properly license imagery?

Honestly, I think they simply may not know better or are confused as to why this is necessary or how to “do” it. Marketing today is heavily weighted on social media platforms—so much so that on Facebook, Instagram and even Pinterest, you’re fighting for every view in the algorithm—and this means volume. Budgeting for the costs of running even one or two large-scale creative campaigns per quarter doesn’t cut it in today’s market. You need to feed the beast to stay on top and that means brands need more and more visual content, all the time. There are many ways to source high volumes of imagery, and some processes are simply savvier (and safer) than others.

What I would say is that imagery, particularly photography, has become so commoditized that there is a perception that it’s not as valuable as it may once have been. Let’s be honest, today, nearly every person has a high-quality camera and editing system in their pocket. We are constantly exposed to what we perceive as “good” photography and video on our social platforms, so the magic that was once attributed to professional photographers has been somewhat eroded. It’s probably fair to say that subconsciously, people feel justified taking visuals for their own use because images are freely available everywhere, and misuse has been normalized. Look at any Instagram meme account and you’ll quickly see that every one of them is using or reposting content they did not create, do not own, and have not legally licensed. In fact, it’s commonplace to see stock imagery posted with the watermarks still intact. Some of these meme accounts have millions of followers and earn significant revenue, but the image creators in the posts rarely see a dime.

Can you explain how the potential ramifications of improper use of imagery can impact the overall business? Do you have any specific examples to share?

If you’ve used an image without permission and you’re lucky, the copyright owner may simply reach out and ask for the image to be removed or to be credited—which may be slightly embarrassing and a small inconvenience if you need to find and replace an image on your website, or more costly if it means reprinting a physical product. In reality, the costs depend on where the image was sourced, how it was used, and if there are models and property release considerations. Downloading from a social platform or photo-sharing site is one thing—misappropriating an image from a professional who licenses content through an agency can have significant monetary consequences, often in the thousands. Where things can get really messy is if there are models and/or locations involved that are not “released.” Publishing an image with a person’s likeness for commercial use, who has not signed a release, can potentially expose you to major legal claims—especially if the end user is one that depicts the model in a negative way. For example, a political ad, or a medical condition that may be perceived as sensitive.

Using properly licensed and released stock imagery from a professional agency provides protection for you and your business, as professional stock agencies require and hold releases with the models’ contact information, and your license date and terms. In the event of a claim, most large agencies have some type of indemnification to protect you from direct litigation if the use was within the license terms.

To put it simply, these details are important if you plan to use imagery for commercial purposes like advertising or promoting your brand. While there are several sites that provide free imagery with the photographer’s permission, not all collect or track releases for models in those images, and none offer indemnification—which can leave you in a bad position if a person brings a claim against you.

How should small business owners approach legally licensing imagery, even when on tight budgets due to the pandemic?

The upside of the commoditization of photography is that it’s now more affordable than ever to license and download quality stock imagery. For example, on iStock, for about the cost of 2 cups of coffee, you can license an essentials collection image. If you are a business that requires lots of imagery that needs constant refreshing, there are monthly subscriptions allowing you anywhere from 10 to 750 downloads per month, based on your need.

The key concern is to make imagery licensing part of your business plan and budget accordingly, and make sure you understand your long-term visual needs. Avoid purchasing single file licenses if you know you’re going to need a quantity of imagery that will be turned over on a regular basis. Subscriptions work with this point in mind and offer flexibility.

How do we educate, or re-educate business owners and creatives and close the gap?

I think there are a few things that need to happen. First, we need copyright laws to be completely reworked and globally applied to catch up with technology, not just visual media.

Second, these rules need to be more prominent and communicated on the platforms they affect and written in plain language that the average person can understand. Copyright laws are complex and affect more and more people in everyday life. Most of us just want to share something cool we found on the web or retweet some information, and we shouldn’t need a lawyer to advise us. At iStock, we’ve intentionally worked to make our license agreements as easy to understand as possible, but there’s no arguing that it’s still complicated and can be misinterpreted. In my opinion, social platforms also need to do their part and provide barriers to copyright infringement. Most claim to have policies in place and systems to report misuse, but they are not consistently enforced. Reverse image search, AI and machine learning are technologies that are very good at image recognition—and are frequently used to research copyright infringement—and could likely be implemented proactively to warn users that they may be submitting copyrighted content.

Getty Images has worked with some of the larger search engines to help guide new policy on how images are returned in searches while highlighting potentially copyrighted content, and even proactively flagging imagery as stock and linking back to the agency to facilitate proper licensing body. More of this needs to happen across the industry, but it’s a good step in the right direction.