As professional writers, we know all to well the frustration of copyright infringement and people stealing professional content to fill up junk websites filled with advertisements and affiliate links. When it comes time for freelance writers to find and use stock photography to go along with our writing efforts we play by the rules. If you don’t believe in the Golden Rule, then at least you should believe in playing for the good guys, and good guys don’t steal a person’s pictures, just like good guys don’t steal someone’s written words.
The catch is that many writers, both professional freelance writers, in-house writers, and hobby writers end up stealing stock photos and infringing on the copyrights of the photographer without ever realizing it.
The confusion comes from the terminology used in the stock photography business, and a general ignorance among most people about how photographers get paid for their work. To illustrate, think back to your wedding day, or if that’s a little bit too far back, or hasn’t happened yet, as a friend about theirs. Specifically, think about the arrangement with the professional wedding photographer that took pictures at your wedding.
Some wedding photographers charge an upfront fee. This covers the photographer’s expenses for being at the wedding and wedding receptions, and also compensates the photographer for showing up to your wedding and not heading off to a better photography opportunity elsewhere. However, some wedding photographers do not charge a fee for their services at all. In one respect, these professional or semi-pro photographers could be considered “free” wedding photographers.
However, as anyone who has had professional wedding photos taken recently knows, that is not actually the case. Frankly, you wouldn’t expect it to be. Photographers have bills to pay too. Unless you have a friend taking portraits in a home photography studio you are going to have to pay something for the services of a professional.
Free Stock Photos Versus Royalty-Free Stock Photos
What makes following photography licensing and copyright rules difficult is understanding that there are actually TWO ways that photographers get paid for their photos, whether we are talking about professional stock photography or otherwise.
The first way a photographer gets paid is by selling the actual photograph. This is the typical transaction that everyone is familiar with in every day life. However, because a photo is creative intellectual property, just like writing is, you can’t really sell the actual photograph. Instead, what you do is sell some or all of the rights to that photograph, just like getting paid for writing.
Writers can sell first-rights to their work which gives the publisher the right to use the work for the very first time. While most publishers also buy at least some reprint rights, theoretically, this would mean that the magazine or newspaper publishing your story could only publish it once, and then the work belongs to you again. Once again, you can sell some or all of the rights to the story, just like a photographer.
The second way a photographer gets paid for a photo is by being paid royalties. Again, just like writers in some cases, a photographer can earn money based upon how is photograph is used. Royalties can be paid in numerous ways including on each publication or usage, based upon how many sales there are of whatever the photo was used for an so on. Writers, particularly novel writers and book authors, get paid royalties too. For each copy of the book published, the writer earns some amount of money (once the advance is paid back).
Here is where everyone gets lost.
Free stock photographs are free in the sense that you do not have to pay up front to use the picture. That does not necessarily mean that you do not have to pay at all.
Likewise, a royalty-free stock photo means that you do not have to pay the photographer royalties based upon where and how often you use the picture. Again, that does not necessarily mean that you do not have to pay anything.
The trick is that free stock photos may still require royalties to be paid when the photograph is used, and royalty-free stock photographs may require that a one-time fee be paid for the rights to use the photo in the first place.
Now, of course, some stock photos are both free and royalty-free making them pictures that you do not have to pay for at all. However, that does not mean that there is no licensing agreement associated with the photo. Totally free stock photos may require that the photographer be credited whenever the picture is used. The license may actually require that the photographer be credited in a specific way. Even more common is that the license may restrict where and how the image can be used. For example, a photo may be prohibited from being used in adult themed advertising or the like.
The point is, don’t just assume that because you searched for “free stock photos” that whatever appears on the webpage Google sends you to is actually 100% free for you to use at any time in any way.
A good tool for a writer’s toolkit is a resource of stock photography, both free and otherwise. Fortunately, the Internet has made finding high-quality stock photography easy. It has not made understanding stock photo licensing any easier.
A good starting place for free stock photos for writers is Microsoft Office. Included in Microsoft Office 2010 and pretty much every Microsoft Office version before that is the Clip Organizer that allows you to search for free clipart. This includes both clipart that came with Microsoft Word 2010 and that which is online on Microsoft’s Office website. Don’t worry about the term clipart, that includes photographs and multimedia, at least on MS Office. If you can’t find it, check your Microsoft Office start menu folder for a Tools section, and the Clip Organizer will be in there.
Good luck, and happy writing.