Guest blog: No pictures, please! (Or the ‘editorial use’ trap)

Stock photos. Where would company blogs and newsletters be without them?

But, as US financial writer Wendy J. Cook explains in this guest blog, even using a commercial stock photo service doesn’t mean you won’t fall foul of copyright rules.

Especially for those of us who are artistically challenged, stock photos are the bomb. I use them in just about every post I publish, to help make my communications pop.

But there’s a trap to beware of, lest those photo bombs backfire on you. I’ll explain more in a moment, but watch out for stock photos marked ‘editorial use.’

First, congratulations if you’re using stock photography to begin with. That already puts you miles ahead of anyone who assumes that, just because you can download an image from the Internet, you may. By and large, you may not. If you don’t believe me, enter ‘photo copyright infringement penalties’ into your favourite search engine and feast your eyes on the results.

Is a blogger a journalist? (No.)

One way to avoid infringing on others’ photo rights is to use stock photos. But remember: When you download a stock photo or illustration, you haven’t purchased the image itself. You’ve purchased a licence to use it under specific terms and conditions.

Most people never bother to read those terms. Most of the time, that may be OK. You probably already know not to re-sell the image as your own, use it in an act of terrorism, or otherwise violate basic ‘do unto others’ principles.

But have you ever noticed that some stock photos are marked ‘editorial use‘?  For example, navigate over to Shutterstock, search on ‘Malala Yousafzai’ (for example) and open any of the resulting hits. To the right of the image, not very prominently, it says: ‘Editorial use only.’

Hovering over the teensy question mark to the right offers this not-so-clear guidance: ‘Editorial content, such as news and celebrity images, are not cleared for commercial use. Learn more on our Support Center.’

I encourage you to go ahead and learn more. But I’ll tell you what it boils down to: it means you cannot use the image unless you’re a journalist. And, no, your firm’s blog or e-newsletter doesn’t count.

So close, so far away.

There are two reasons this is frustrating. First, it eliminates almost any stock photos that depict well-known people (such as actors, political figures and sports heroes) as well as many identifiable places (like the New York Stock Exchange or the Empire State Building, which are trademarked properties).

In other words, many of the images you’d most love to use are the least available. Worse, many stock photo services that offer editorial use images will let you download it anyway, no problem. But if you then use it as you please, you risk violating the terms you’ve agreed to.

A lawyer confirms my hunch

Personally, I’ve been avoiding editorial use images for years. I’ve seen plenty of others blissfully playing with photographic fire, but after reading the fine print for myself I decided to err on the side of caution. That said, I was never sure I was correct. I never could find a definitive answer out on the Internet, and the legal disclosures were always enigmatic.

Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Intellectual Property/Trademark Attorney Donna Schmitt of Armstrong Teasdale for her opinion on the subject. Better yet, she generously agreed to let me share her comments with you (emphases are mine):

The question: Many companies publish monthly informational newsletters that are posted on their websites and/or on their blogs. Is use of stock photos marked for “editorial use” in these forums appropriate, without getting permission?

Donna’s answer: “While company newsletters/blogs are informative, they may not fall under the editorial exception for fair use of copyrighted works. Newsletters put out by for-profit companies are usually viewed as a form of advertisement/marketing and not news reporting. You should secure proper permissions for any photos you use in your newsletter to avoid risks of infringement. Many stock photo providers scan the internet for misuse of their photos and send demand letters to bad actors, seeking monetary compensation for use.”

Although I am US-based (as is Donna), this same advice likely applies to those of you who hail from the UK and Europe. I asked Donna about that too, and she explained: “Many countries have signed onto the Berne Convention treaty, which recognizes copyrights across borders and gives reciprocal rights to copyright owners from one country to another.”

So there you have it. In many respects, I would have loved to have been proven wrong so I could start decorating my posts with images of my favourite hot celebrities. (Photos of people also raise rights of privacy and publicity issues, by the way.) Instead, I now know I’ve been right to be cautious. I recommend the same to you.

Wendy J. Cook is a US-based copywriter specialising in communications for evidence-based investment firms. This post first appeared on her ‘Plain Speak Blog‘.