The Importance of Knowing the Provenance of Your Website Photos

Stacked photos of a Dog on a beach

On the second two photos you can see a watermark, see one on the first one? No? But it “might” have a digital watermark.

As anyone who has sat in on one of my workshops or seminars and heard me stress the importance of making sure any photos you use on your website are legal, this will be preaching to the choir. If not, I want to revisit this for anyone who has not heard me rant about the importance of checking provenance.  

What IS the provenance of images? Making sure you know where they came from legally.

In the last few years, I’ve lost count of the number of people who have run into copyright-related issues because they, OR their website developers, have run into an issue with copyright and photo/image usage.

If a client provides a photo to a web developer for use on the client’s website, the client is clearly at fault and needs to work with the photographer and/or agency to resolve the copyright claim. 

Unfortunately, some web developers also provide stock photos (provenance unknown) for clients’ websites. The client gets hit with a copyright suit, and the web developer does not take responsibility for it, even though they were the ones who supplied the image.

A few more things to note, this can also happen when a web developer (legitimately) buys stock photos for a website. Then a client transfers the site away from the web developer to someone else and doesn’t obtain the licensing information for the photo.

Or the photo is obtained from a “free” stock photo site, and the site is not 100% safe (I’d say most of the free stock photo sites are questionable) because who knows if the photographer claiming ownership is the owner) and you also can’t see what’s called a Digimarc watermark or other types of invisible-to-the-eye watermark systems. Many copyrighted photos have tracked back to Getty Images from free stock photo sites, so I tend not to trust any of them.

I’m particularly anal-retentive about photo copyright because many, many years ago, when I was still doing website design, I obtained a photo that I thought was free and clear from what at the time was a legitimate free stock photo site and used it on a client’s website. 

My client received a cease and desist letter from Getty Images, and even though we removed the photo immediately and provided documentation about where the photo was obtained, they still sent collections after her. And the collections agency was calling the inn literally every hour during the day to harass her. 

I paid the fee to get it cleared up, because it was my fault for providing the image. Since then, I’ve lost count of the hundreds of people coming my way and looking for advice having run into similar problems. Either they used a copyrighted photo unknowingly or their web developer provided a photo or in a couple of cases, multiple photos and they got nabbed for it.

Very recently, a related issue came up, and this topic reared its ugly head again, so I thought it would be a good time to revisit this.

A website that myself, one of my clients and about a dozen other commercial photographers had a written agreement with an association that in order to use our photos, there were to be photo credits with links back to our websites on the website itself and this was done prior.

The website recently got redone with the new web developer not transferring any photo credits for any of the photos. 

I won’t detail the issues and communication that arose from this, but my photos and my client’s photos (which was my primary concern) were removed from the new site as this issue did not get resolved to our satisfaction.

Unfortunately, dozens of other photos remain that need to be credited to the other commercial photographers. If my client had caught this before I had, he would never have reached out and tried to get this resolved; he would have just sent them a cease and desist letter/copyright infringement notice plus tacking on usage fees.

I know some of the other photographers that contributed photos, and I suspect they would and may do the same. I did my due diligence and let both the site owners and web developers know about this, which has not yet been addressed looking at the site this morning.

What bothers me most about the recent issue is that one, the web developer not only failed to transfer the photo credits in the first place. If they were on the old site (which they were) that it should be common sense/a good legal move, to move them as well. 

Two, the web developer did not even bother to check the provenance of the photos.

Three, and this is a little detail from above, when asked to give photo credit, added photo credits to photos that were not the photographers, leaving the photographers open to liability for copyright infringement themselves.

For businesses, the takeaways should be:

  • Know where you got your site photos. Are they documented? Are they legal? If you have photos on your site that you have had for years, and you are not sure where they came from, it doesn’t mean your safe; it just means you might not have gotten caught yet. Sometimes it can take years for a copyright issue to come up.
  • If a web developer provides photos, where is the provenance for them, and will they take responsibility (they should!) if a site they developed for you gets hit with a copyright infringement claim for an image or images they provided? If they refuse to when asked about this issue (and I’d get this in writing), you need to use your judgment about whether that’s someone you want to use as a vendor.
  • If you switch web developers, keep in mind you need to either get provenance of any stock photos that the prior site developer has provided for you or replace them with new ones that you know are legal.
  • if you buy stock photos from a stock photo site make sure you take a screenshot of the site with the page that photo is getting purchased from including the licensing information. Document, document, document. Sometimes photographers remove their photos from stock photo sites and then do image searches or unscrupulous firms do searches for them (unknown to the photographers). If you have proof it was bought legally, your in the clear.
  • If you do source photos from free stock photo sites, include the URL of the page the photo came from and screenshot and date the screen of the page it came from. This won’t protect you from one of the big stock photo companies but may help if a private photographer claims copyright.

Here are a few sites where you can do a reverse image search on your images.