If the Suit Fits. . .

On this week’s front page we have news of a company that owns copyrights on photographs taking legal action against websites that use those photographs without compensation. This is something every broadcaster needs to pay close attention to, because no one is safe from discovery or litigation.

I should know. Some time ago, in the course of constructing a website for a local insurance broker, we inadvertently allowed a picture we were using “FPO” (jargon for “for position only,” meaning a place-holder intended to be replaced before the site was launched) to remain on the site when it went live. What we didn’t realize was that the picture was owned by Getty Images, and you don’t want to mess with Getty Images.
Unlike a stock-photography service, where you might pay, say, $10 or $20 or $50 for the right to use a picture on any website for any length of time, Getty structures its rates around who’s using the picture, where it’s being used, and how long it will be used. And they’re not cheap. We count ourselves lucky that we only had to pay $520; they could have sued us for, and collected, a lot more.

Is Getty—and the company featured in this week’s news article, BWP Media—predatory? If you’re asking whether these companies have legal eagles on retainer, waiting to pounce on the hapless infractors, the answer is a resounding Yes. But I think there is a big difference between a legitimate rights-holder and “rights trolls” like the company mentioned in Jay Douglas’s article, ABS (a.k.a. Arthur and Barbara Sheridan), who appear to be opportunistically capitalizing on a wrinkle in the law, and who may well have acquired the rights to the music over which they sue specifically so that they could sue.

Happily, Google is making it much easier to avoid the photographic pitfall. When you do an image search in Google, click on “Search Tools” and then on “Usage Rights.” You may need to do a little research on what the terms mean, but you want to filter on either “Labeled for reuse” or “Labeled for reuse with modification.” Even then, the label may be wrong, but there are a few safe repositories of rights-free photographs, such as Wikipedia, WikiMedia, Pixabay, and Flikr.

In the present climate, you are flirting with disaster to play pre-1972 music—and you are most certainly flirting even more with disaster to post copyrighted pictures on your website.