Copyright Case Highlights the Risks of Stock Photos

patrick-dozkVhDyvhQ-unsplashA point we’ve made on this blog and website is that you have to be careful when using anything on your website that you haven’t created yourself, or that you haven’t paid someone to create for you (while ensuring they sign over the rights.) Admittedly it’s not a message that the internet as a whole has caught onto, although there is some distinction between some person reposting pics on Instagram and what gets posted on business websites, with names and addresses and people that can ultimately be sued if they’re not careful. 

One such cautionary tale comes from Ernesto Van der Sar in the digital pages of TorrentFreak, although this story has manifold lessons for all involved. One player is Rebecca Marsh, the Vice President of Marketing & Communications at Merchants Bank of Indiana, who posted a blog featuring a photo of the Indianapolis skyline, such as it exists. The other is Richard Bell, the photographer who took that photo who also happens to be an attorney, and who filed a suit against Merchants Bank for copyright infringement over her use of the photo. 

At first blush, you might assume that Marsh found the photo online and saved it to use with her work; it certainly wouldn’t be the first case of someone likely less familiar with the particulars of copyright law making a similar mistake.  The truth is actually far more benign: Marsh used the picture from the pool of stock photos offered by the content management system (CMS) the bank uses for their website. Given that the bank pays for the CMS and the stock photo option, you can certainly understand how Marsh would think that she would be free and clear to use the photo in that instance. 

That wasn’t the case, apparently, and Bell took the opportunity to sue from this case of infringement, as he does quite often; Van der Sar notes that Bell has made over $135,000 in copyright lawsuit settlements related to the photo as opposed to just $825 from licensing it. And Bell certainly sought to make the most of this instance as well, suing Merchants Bank for $150,000 and eventually adding Sonar Studios to the lawsuit. 

Given that dollar figure, it’s probably not a surprise to learn that Marsh and Merchants Bank immediately remedying an innocent mistake after being informed of it wasn’t enough to sate Bell. But for those with a strong sense of justice,  there’s something of a happy ending to the story: while the court did ultimately side with Bell on the facts of the case, the damages levied against Merchants Bank was reduced to the minimum of $200, and with Sonar Studios settling with Bell for $2,000, the bank ultimately didn’t have to pay Bell anything.  

While there is some satisfaction at the outcome given that no malice was involved, it’s probably best not to get in that sort of situation to begin with. As always, take care with what you’re posting online, and read the terms on whatever site you use for photos, long and boring as they may be.


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