Designers and creators are visual artists, and many thrive on sharing their content with the world, but copyright is a double-edged sword. Whether you are protecting yourself by choosing images or videos that are part of the public domain or purchased from stock repositories, you also need to be aware of your own rights when you share or sell your content online.
From a design perspective, it is critical to always use properly sourced media. You can’t just Google, copy and paste, and cross your fingers – you need to do your due diligence. The first option is to obtain permission from the creator to use the image. The second choice is to legally purchase media from stock websites. This is clear cut: you pay a fee, accept an agreement about how you will use the media and that you understand the conditions surrounding its use, and then proceed to use it. Yet, this method can be pricey. Stock material can range from a few to hundreds of dollars or you can choose to pay a monthly subscription fee for a set number of downloads. It’s also important to check if there are specific use conditions surrounding each photo’s use.
The final option is to follow the creative commons license structure or use public domain media. Creative Commons is a model to help creators assign universally recognized licenses specifying the uses for content. These can stipulate whether a designer needs to give attribution, has the right to create derivative works, and/or use the content in a commercial context. There is also a huge ecosystem online of people providing royalty-free media, some great resources are Pexels and Pixabay.
For a creator, the Internet also offers the ability to make money from one’s media by becoming contributors to stock repositories or other sharing platforms. This side hustle can be a great way for a professional or hobbyist to make a little extra money on the side, while practicing their craft and honing their talents, but there are risks.
According to the Canadian Association of Professional Image Creators, photograph authorship comes under a special regime in the Copyright Act. Prior to November 2012 under S. 10(2) of the Act, the owner of the “initial negative or plate” at the time the photograph was “made” was the author. But since 2012 with the introduction of the Copyright Moderization Act (Bill C-11), the author of a photograph will be the individual photographer in all cases. Employment can be one exception (s. 13(3)). The copyright of a photograph taken during the course of employment under contact or apprenticeship, in the absence of an agreement, belongs to the employer. Therefore, writing a contract ensures you can outline any conditions in regard to image use and ownership.
Copyright protection on a photograph generally lasts for the life of the author plus fifty years. The author becomes the first owner of the copyright on the photograph and may assign the copyright to another person. However, if you are choosing to become a contributor on a stock website, i.e. uploading your media to make money, then the rules change; in many cases, you are waiving those ownership rights.
I heard a disheartening story around Christmas time. A local photographer had been using Shutterstock to sell images. A photo of his was purchased and printed on a bunch of holiday cards as per the license agreement. His revenue from this download was $1.88, about 12% of the photo’s sale on Shutterstock, but the box of cards containing his pictures retailed for $6.00 at Walmart. This is an inherent risk of sharing your media on these websites; the final use for it may generate revenue for the purchaser that far exceeds the returns you may receive.
You need to assess your comfort level before you place anything online for commercial sale and make sure you understand what sort of ownership you retain over your media, once it exists on these platforms. The bottom line is we have a responsibility to respect creator rights, use media and attribution appropriately, and follow the guidelines stipulated by the associated license. The excuse that the image didn’t have a watermark or a “©” to show it was copyrighted doesn’t work.