By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard about Getty Image’s PicScout bot that’s crawling the internet searching for unauthorized use of their images. It looks like it’s been around for at least a couple years. If you haven’t, well, Getty Images is a client of PicScout [www.picscout.com], an Israeli-based company employing technology that essentially trolls the internet searching for images and comparing algorithms to libraries of companies they represent. Getty Images is one of several stock image sources PicScout lists as clients. With a glance on their customers webpage, you’ll see they also list Corbis, Image Source, Super Stock, and others.
You can hardly blame Getty Images or any other image source for wanting to identify abusers and protect their intellectual property. They rightfully deserve to get paid for use of their materials. Getty Images rights-managed and rights-ready selections are often pricey for good reason. It’s great stuff. Unique. Interesting. Professional. And if it’s beyond your budget, there are numerous low-cost royalty-free options—including Getty Images own royalty-free library.
But here’s the rub. As the PicScout bot finds images and when Getty Images claims unauthorized usage, they are apparently generating what many have described as threatening or strongly worded letters along with invoices—typically reported to be $1,000 per image and some claim higher. Most believe the fees are exorbitant when the usage of the images in question can often be acquired for as little as 10% of what their invoices demand. (However, keep in mind, Getty Images often licenses usage for a specified length of time.) Many have labeled the tactic and fees as extortion. (A neighboring tenant to one of our clients just received one and the fees demanded for three images were indeed, $1,000 per image.) Evidently, there doesn’t seem to be an initial cease and desist notification. Also some who have removed images, but probably have chosen to ignore Getty Image’s invoices, report receiving notices from NCS Recovery, a national debt collection agency.
Certainly, the appropriate action is to remove unauthorized images in use on one’s website as soon as one knows. Many companies however, are unaware of the violation until they receive the letter and invoice. As many of these companies appear to be small firms, I suspect they may have used a fly-by-night or basement operation to build their website who either knowingly or unknowingly grabbed protected shots. Perhaps the shots were legitimately purchased and licensed and long after doing business with the website designer, users were unaware of the licensing terms regarding length of usage and renewal terms. Good reasons to spend a little more upfront and work with a marketing and web firm that understands the nuances of releases, rights, intellectual property issues, etc. and one you can go back to if you ever have an issue.
Another firm reports taking over and redesigning a client website from another provider and removing old photos from the pages and server, only to receive an invoice months later. They believe the old photos were either captured in a sweep months earlier or possibly located on archives.org. Others claim they did pay for usage. Some believe photos were purchased through subscription plans and can’t produce written proof to rights for photos singled out. Others point out that Getty Images has acquired other stock photo companies or their libraries and believe they purchased usage rights from the original owners. Others have purchased templates with photos imbedded. Unfortunately, the template provider typically does not have resale right to such assets. What a mess.
Worse, they have infuriated others who have no Getty Images on their site who claim the Picscout bot uses stealth tactics ignoring robot.txt, attempts to bypasses security measures, presents the appearance as a web browser, and consumes a lot of bandwidth on their sites. In one case, they reportedly ranked 15th on bandwidth use in one month at one site.
If Getty Images intentions are to simply thwart unauthorized use of their image assets, they’re probably succeeding. Seems like most willingly and promptly comply upon learning about the problem—as they should. However, judging from opinions, comments, and calls for boycotting posted online, if they’re intent on recovering fees from pay-on-demand invoices, this could get ugly—or should I say, uglier.
I think whomever at Getty Images decided to employ the technology to stop rogue usage of images is spot on. You’ve got to protect your intellectual property to control its use and retain its value. On the other hand, I think the nuisance they seem to be creating for non-violators and the invoicing tactics and perceived money-grab from unsuspecting companies is in the long run, a bad idea and in the process, they’re ticking off companies and people worldwide (check the posts, they’re worldwide). They may very well be doing some long-term serious damage to their brand. You’d think a company with so much knowledge about protecting images, might also know a little about the importance of protecting their own.