Copyright Caboodle: Stock Images in Publishing

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Copyright Caboodle: Stock Images in Publishing

Something we’ve noticed since starting Woulds & Shoulds is how little people know about copyright.

We had one person send us a non-fiction manuscript with images, but it was pretty clear that he had typed a few keywords into Google, and took whatever pictures he thought would look good, and slapped them into his manuscript.

Google Images is not a u-pick, where you can just snatch up all the berries you want and stuff them in your sweater pockets. It’s a collection of pictures around the internet, gathered based on your keywords. For each of those images, someone, somewhere has taken the time to make them. Sometimes people allow and encourage others to share and use their work without permission, but in most cases, someone holds copyright.

This article is the first in a series about copyright and the writer. Today, we’ll give an overview of how publishers use stock images.

Buying from Stock Image Websites


For the most part, unless you are a noteworthy author a lot of fiction publishers turn to stock image websites to use for covers.

Stock image websites are pretty easy to find. Istockphoto, Shutterstock, and Getty Images are just some examples of large scale, find-any-sort-of-picture-ever companies.

This is how they work. Say I’m Joe Photographer, and I like taking photos. I sign up on one of the aforementioned sites and submit my work. If my photos get approved, I get a percentage of the money earned each time someone buys my photo.

That’s the other thing, though. When you buy an image, you’re not really buying it. You are buying the right to use it for a specific purpose: an article, a book cover, a poster, or whatever else. You are licencing the photo, in other words. You may also see options to purchase extended licences.

So what does this mean for you, the enthusiastic and noble-minded self-publisher?



Say you’re self-publishing a book, and you’re planning on hiring a printer. You’re a new author, but you’ve got a killer book that you think will sell. You’re looking at an iStockphoto picture, and you think it’s perfect for the cover. Great. The standard licencing agreement covers up to 499,999 impressions—that’s a lot. A bestseller in Canada is only 5,000 copies; small potatoes in comparison. So you purchase the photo with the standard licence.

A few months later, you publish your books. Fortunately you did some pre-marketing, and ta-da, you sell some books. And then some more. And more, and more, until your sales numbers are out of control and you find yourself sleeping on piles of money. A dream come true!

Or can you….

You check again on the website, and turns out, you have to re-licence the image before you can purchase an extended licence.

Funnily enough, for electronic publications–meaning ebooks–you don’t have to buy an extended licence if you use iStock. On the other hand, some stock photo companies such as Shutterstock allow 250,000 end users to own a product with their image on it before buying an enhanced licence.

Of course, the odds of a self-published author selling that many copies is quite low, so under normal conditions you may not need an extended licence.

Model Releases


A small point, but if there is a person in the stock image, the photographer usually has to get a model release form saying that the model gives the photographer the right to use their face in whatever way the photographer sees fit. This release is important to consider as a publisher if this person’s face is to become part of a book cover. If there was no release and a person happens to see their face on a book cover, they may contact you and demand royalties from you.

And Lastly…


Make sure you compare the standard licence to the extended one–always. It’s better for you to take a little time now and compare rather than wait for a lawyer to call you up. At the very least, if a picture isn’t yours, you should make an effort to find out whose it is, and ask for permission to use it. I find most people are willing to share their work as long as they get credit somewhere. Credit in a book for images usually goes on the copyright page.

See iStockphoto’s Licence Comparison Table.

See Shutterstock’s Licence Comparison Table.

Join us next week on Copyright Caboodle as we talk about the wonderful world of abused quotations and their oft-ignored permissions.

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    Maia Apodaca

    With havin so much written content do you ever run into any issues of plagorism or copyright violation? My website has a lot of unique content I’ve either written myself or outsourced but it looks like a lot of it is popping it up all over the internet without my agreement. Do you know any methods to help protect against content from being ripped off? I’d genuinely appreciate it.


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