4 Reasons Licensing Stock Photos is Better than Getting Them for Free

 In iStock Solutions

943986206, lechatnoir

It’s easy to fall into the “let’s just find a free stock image” trap, especially on tight deadlines and tighter budgets. But, there’s more to this story than just the price of the image. So, we sat down with iStock’s Legal Risk Mitigation Director Heather Cameron and Senior Designer Paul Braga to get their thoughts on all the reasons it’s better to spend a bit of money to license an image.

Staying covered, legally speaking

One of the best reasons to download an image from a site like iStock instead of a free site is the inclusion of legal protection. This comes in a couple forms: First of all, with every iStock image you’ll get $10,000 of indemnification. That means that if there happens to be some sort of copyright claim or suit, iStock will foot the legal bills up to $10,000. If you want more peace of mind, you can add additional indemnification, up to unlimited protection.

Spending a small amount at the beginning of a purchase to possibly save more than $10,000 is obviously a good trade-off, but it goes beyond that. “Most of these free photo sites don’t have terribly responsive customer service teams, let alone a legal team,” says Cameron. “At iStock, if a photographer wants to claim a copyright issue on a photo that a customer has licensed from us, we’re the team that photographer has to call. In the case of a free photo site, the photographer might be forced to call you, the customer, directly.” So not only are you exposed to potentially exorbitant legal fees, but you also have to field all the calls, deal with the legwork yourself, and even possibly put your brand through a PR nightmare.

Knowing exactly what your image usage rights are

“I can’t stress enough: just because you’re downloading an image from a free site, doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want with it,” says Cameron. “There are still terms and conditions attached, and typically only paid stock photo sites are clear about what those terms are.” So, if you’re using a free photo site you might not even realize you’re breaching your terms if and when you do. A paid stock photo site is much clearer on these terms at the point of purchase.

Beyond the photo itself, there are clearance concerns about what is depicted in the photo. Things like: famous landmarks, brand logos, and even the actual people in the photo. “There are instances where the photo itself isn’t the thing causing the copyright claim, but instead, the subject depicted,” says Cameron. “There are copyright claims services that actually crawl the Internet for any use, looking for excuses to file a claim. It’s another source of income, and it’s these creators’ right to go after these fees.” One famous example saw a simple test model for a coffee company get awarded more than $15 million, not because the photograph itself was in breach of a claim, but because the model’s likeness was. A stock photo site takes the time to vet photos not just for their copyright ownership, but by the intellectual property and likenesses contained in the photos. This means that these things are also largely covered in the protection we highlighted above.

Getting image quality that fits your brand

Today, sites like iStock put the goal of authenticity at the forefront—tasking our photographers with producing professional-quality imagery that doesn’t sacrifice quality. This means that when you license an image, you get quality that also feels natural. Braga has always started his photo searches with paid images, even before he worked for a site that provided them. “Paid images are usually better because those images are generally curated by a team of creatives that understand the industry and what makes a great image,” Braga says. Most free websites take content from any photographer, and in many cases, those photographers are indiscriminately dumping their whole photo library straight onto the site. iStock on the other hand has a vetting process, and even in some cases has the internal creative team actually brief photographers on what to shoot.

With that said, there may be instances where a free image can meet the quality you need, specifically when there isn’t a person’s likeness involved. “Sometimes getting pictures of an object or a landscape are instance where you can opt for a free site,” says Braga. “But it really depends on your audience. Is this an internal presentation going to 5 people? Or an Instagram ad going to 5 million people.” At the end of the day, you get more options, better creative direction, and ultimately a safer creative starting point when you license an image.

Tailoring your imagery to your project

The last big piece of this puzzle is the number of options you get when you pay to license a photo instead of downloading one for free. Most free sites have a sub-par UX and very few options for your image. On iStock, you’ll have your choice of resolution and you’ll even have an account to look back on your downloads to take stock of what you’ve got. Free sites aren’t always that simple.

To be fair, most designers are equipped to resize and crop an image, but Braga points out that stock photos sites’ options can help non-creative professionals. “If you’re someone who isn’t a designer and you need imagery, there’s value in having multiple size options to make it easier to download a photo for your end project, be it a social post or a brochure,” he says. Either way, you’re giving yourself more to work with by licensing an image, and going back to Cameron’s customer service point, you’ll have recourse if the image downloads incorrectly. It’s all about covering yourself for your project needs, and a small investment on the front end will produce the best work and shield you from legal frustrations all at once.

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