Royalty free stock photos, watermarks and your brand

/ November 19, 2017/ Advertising, Advice, Commentary/ 0 comments

So this image below is a screen cap of a video, or as people now call it, “piece of content” that was sponsored on Facebook by a local company called Rituals, clearly shows a problem that exists in the world of creative production. The problem of theft of royalty free stock.


Image of Santa from a screen grab of a video by Rituals Coffee house. There is a watermark of the Shutterstock logo.

Spot the Issue


If you spotted the problem, you should award yourself 10 points. Did you see it? The vague, almost imperceptible image of the ShutterStock watermark. “Oh you say, no one will notice that.” True, but what happens when people do? Your brand is associated with more or less stealing? The general public may not even notice or care and if you are a relatively large brand like Rituals you may escape the legal implications, but if you are a small entrepreneur you might be putting yourself in trouble.

Not just royalty free stock photos, but just plain photos

Photographer Mark Lyndersay has written extensively on his blog about “Stolen Images”. On at least eight separate occasions he has found his images used without his permission. There are many photographers like Mark who have an increasingly hard time protecting their rights. Take the story of Max Dubler who found his instagram images being used by established companies in their marketing campaigns. When called out these companies were confused “if it’s on the internet, should I not have the rights to use it?” Image theft is so commonplace, no one really bats an eyelid. Yet it’s still wrong. I am not going into the great details of the legality of stealing intellectual property. Read about Creative Commons licensing and free to use images are different from licensed for commercial use and know the difference. What I am doing is pointing out the ramifications of using an obviously stolen image, especially royalty free stock.

The Rituals example above shows that companies are either unwilling or unable to pay for a royalty free stock image. Royalty free stock photos, even footage, is relatively cheap. Rituals cannot use the excuse that “We had no money for the sparkles” in that footage above. The shot needed would only, really, be used for web then the footage itself needed to be no more than 852px wide. Therefore you would have paid, in perpetuity, forever, no more than US$60. How much coffee does Rituals sell in a day? What’s $US60 for the proper representation of your brand?

“But I can’t afford $US60 for a royalty free stock!” you moan.

Yes this is true, and if we want to stop hemorrhaging $US we should be paying local photographers and videographers for imagery that would work out cheaper. You will also have more control over the creative production. With royalty a free stock photo you get exactly what you see, something that may not exactly fit the message you are trying to convey. You want to know a secret? You can get FREE royalty free stock footage from places like YouTube. So there is really no excuse for using someone else’s creative!

All it takes is one person to email Shutterstock and you might find yourself in a lawsuit. So do the right thing and purchase your images. You might find it cheaper in the long run. When it comes to local photographers, message them first and you may find they are willing to give you a deal on the use of the photo. Never assume that someone isn’t watching, because they are.

Is this the end of the world?

It may seem that I am being overly harsh with Rituals, a local Trinidadian company that seeks to maintain its foothold over the overpriced coffee market, but thats just it, Rituals should be the last company to be doing something like this.* In an age where your social media faux pas are becoming increasingly important to the survival of your company, double checking your communications should be Rituals’ priority in the future. I hope they have fixed it by this time. (as of publication they haven’t)

Don’t steal. Don’t use watermarked images in your communication, or “piece of content”. Ask yourself “do I have the rights to use this?” and always check your sources. Find out what it costs to own the rights for each piece. Estimate thoroughly with a list of footage and its costs before final production.

If you need help with your companies social media strategy, get in contact and let’s chat about how we can keep your professionalism in an online space.

*disclaimer: I love Rituals, I love the coffee, the service (when its good) and I support it as a local brand, but this does not make it immune to criticism. If you make a mistake, own it, do better.
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