Royalty-Free Images May Not be Liability-Free


Perhaps you’ve seen this story making the rounds: A Texas teenager is suing Virgin Mobile because it used her image without permission in a billboard campaign in Australia.

The girl appears in a photograph which was released under a Creative Commons license. The photographer, via the license, expressly permitted commercial use of his image, as long as he received a photo credit. Virgin Mobile Australia duly credited the photographer when it used his photograph in the ad campaign. However, because the Creative Commons license does not apply to the likeness of the girl, who found her face being used to tout a mobile phone network halfway around the world, Virgin may still be in hot water.

A photographer is free to license his own work in whatever way he sees fit, but unless model and location releases were obtained, that license does not, by extension, cover the likenesses which appear in the image. How many photos on royalty-free photo sites come with model and/or location releases? Not many, last time I checked.

So, next time you turn to the royalty-free sites when sourcing images for your clients, ask yourself these questions:

Are there recognizable people in the images?
Are there recognizable locations? (Disneyland for example, or someone’s home.)
Are there recognizable branded objects?
Have the necessary releases been obtained for all of the above?

Fellow Notes on Design blogger and intellectual property attorney Jean Perwin may have better advice, but for me and many other designers I know, rights-managed images suddenly make a lot more sense.