Among the many legal landmines that small business owners must navigate is the problem of the stock photo industry. These companies, such as Getty Images and Masterfile, use sophisticated software to comb the Internet and look for images that are copyrighted and, if they believe you are using the image without authorization, they send you a letter demanding a large fee to settle the case otherwise they threaten to sue. They will often demand thousands of dollars to settle the case or, they claim, they will sue.
Some have accused these companies of heavy-handed tactics and abusive legal practices. For example, when these companies make their first demand, they provide no real proof that they are, in fact, the copyright owner. And, if you ask them to prove that they are, in fact, the lawful owner of the right they will claim that the burden of proof is on you (which is incorrect) and will only agree to submit proof of a claim as part of litigation (which, they claim, can only be avoided by paying the fee!)
Owners of copyrighted images clearly deserve to receive fair compensation for their works. Our entire intellectual property system relies on the protection of these rights. However, what these companies are doing is abusing the legal process in an attempt to extort money out of mostly small business owners who often have an image on their website because they bought a template or hired a web designer. Unfortunately, copyright law does not excuse inadvertent infringement and these companies try to take advantage of the law, and of their relative size, to threaten and scare small business owners.
You can fight back. For the most part, these firms do not sue. There are very few cases filed in court. In some cases, it is just too expensive for them to actually prove their case because they represent so many copyright owners and it is possible that they do not even have the right to sue anyway. It is just easier for them to take a heavy-handed approach, threaten to sue, refuse to prove their case and try to extract some money from you. There are many websites and forums out there to help you learn more about these companies and their sad and cynical business. This is one very good example.
The other action you can take is to be very, very careful about using images on your website. Just because you hired a web designer or purchased a template does not mean that you are free of risk. Every small business owner should go through their website and examine every image. If you cannot prove that you purchased the image, you should remove it. When possible, take your own pictures (you own the copyright from the moment you create the work). And, finally, don’t support these businesses if you can avoid them. These businesses, and others like them, prey on small business owners, and misuse the legal system to extract a tax. If you are want to buy and image, go to a source that does not use these tactics, like PhotoShelter, that give more of the money to the photographers and have a better business ethic.