One of the foundations of photo agencies is to provide its customers with safe, secure, properly vetted visual content. In exchange for a fee, clients of photo agencies are offered images they can use in full blissful confidence. Or so you thought.
In the last month, a few stories have surfaced exposing that this might no longer be the case. Alamy, one of the most prominent stock photo agency and whose mission statement is “Changing the world one image at a time.” was caught selling an image of one photographer taken by another photographer. Nadav Kander discovered his portrait of director David Lynch on the cover of UK magazine The BIG Issue. After inquiry, he learned that the magazine had licensed the image from Alamy. Apparently, another photographer had taken a photo of the David Lynch portrait at a gallery and had submitted it to Alamy as being his. No questions asked.
At its creation and for decades after, photo agencies had personal relationships with the handful of selected photographers they represented. They had constant conversations and entertained a healthy relationship, granted, no always conflict-free. Knowing the photographer allowed the agency to know their work, style, and skills. Thus, if an image seemed out of sort, it would be spotted immediately. Today, photo agencies like Alamy accept everything from anyone, because, as they write: ” ….we don’t believe in editing our photographers. They dictate the market by uploading whatever they want…”. Yes, indeed.
Alamy is not alone. The microstock giant, Shutterstock, also enjoys playing copyright Russian roulette with its client. But here, there is an amusing twist. They actually have a built-in tool that reveals if an image has been borrowed from another photographer. Granted, it was not built for that usage.
Similarity search is a basic AI solution that allows to automatically classify images based on their overall appearance. As a search tool, it can do wonders as it helps seekers to find all similarly looking images to the one they are currently viewing. But it can also find exact matches. And this is what it did for one Shutterstock contributor. He found his image, multiple times, under other contributor’s names. Not only did Shutterstock allowed the upload of the same images multiple times ( no wonder they have over 20 million images to offer if they accept exact copies) but they didn’t mind that it apparently belonged to various contributors. Shutterstock issued an apology.
But it is not only established photo agencies that play this game. Unsplash, the most visited free photo website apparently doesn’t care about copyright either. An unsuspecting user of the service downloaded an image from Unsplash and published it on his website, only to be served with a notice from Copytrack, claiming copyright infringement. It seems that Unsplash was, like its paying peers, distributing an image under a false credit. The image was actually created by another. Because the terms of Unsplash are very loose, they are not liable. Free, yes, but not of possible litigations.
These repeated cases are not to be taken lightly. The issue here is that the trust between the photo agency and the customer is forever broken. If those images made it through, how many more of these “borrowed images” are waiting to be discovered? Are photo agency clients now forced to play roll the dice every time they license an image? If well-establish companies whose core business is to license photographs free of any possible litigations cannot hold their promises, what then are they charging customers for? It is pure professional carelessness and an insult to their contributors and clients alike.
In their ridiculous race to offer as many images as possible ( apparently size does matter in the stock photo world), they disregard any basic protection against copyright infringement, the number one threat against photography. They cast a large shadow of doubt on all the industry since if Alamy, Shutterstock, and Unsplash do it, why not the Getty, Adobe Stock, and all others?