Thursday, February 21, 2008

A picture is worth a thousand bucks: Web templates and stock photo use

Dear Rich: I purchased a web hosting package a few years back that included free website templates. When I created a different website, I used one of the templates, including the top photo. I just got a letter from a major stock photo company asking for $1,300 and to pay for a license or remove the image. I immediately removed the image, but I can't afford to pay $1,300. I have all the documentation about the free templates. Do I have to pay $1,300 for something I thought was free? $1,300 for a website image? Wow! Here at Dear Rich headquarters we pay about $1 for low res images (like the one on the left). In any case, you did the correct thing by immediately removing the image (and keeping the documentation). Hopefully, that demonstrates your good will.
There are a few things that may be going on here. Your original web hosting package may have included a permission to use the photo but that permission did not extend to other web hosting services. Or, perhaps the first web hosting arrangement never really got the proper permission, so wherever you use it, you'll have a problem. The photo may have some digital watermarking embedded so that the stock photo company can trace all such uses and catch those who use it without permission. If you're using it under the terms of the original webhosting agreement, you need to look to your agreement and your webhosts for resolution. If not, the stock photo company likely has a legitimate claim for infringement.
How far will they pursue it? It's possible they could file a lawsuit, but that doesn't seem practical or likely -- they wouldn't recover the costs of the litigation. Odds are good that if you write and explain your mistake -- you mistakenly thought you had a license to use it -- the whole thing will go away. They may send some more threatening emails, but the chances of anything going beyond that are unlikely. If I'm wrong (hard to believe, but it happens), let me know and maybe we can trigger a Streisand effect.