Stock images are both a blessing and a curse for a company. After a quick Google search, you can find countless beautiful and inexpensive photos that you can use for your own marketing. But beware: all that glitters is not gold and this is especially true for free photos. Not every stock image can be used without any problems. In this article, we'll tell you exactly what you need to look out for when using stock photos and which legal aspects and license terms you need to be aware of. 

I would like to point this out explicitly: I am a marketing specialist - not a lawyer. The information in this article is not a substitute for legal advice, nor should it be. I would like to sensitize other self-employed people to this topic - because unfortunately far too many "experts" still recommend Unsplash & Co without drawing attention to the dangers.    

On marketingminded we also rely on stock images, but there are some disadvantages and dangers when using stock photos But if you inform yourself extensively and know what to look out for, the use of free stock images is no problem. 

Frist Things First: Image databases & licenses

If you decide to use stock photos, there are general legal aspects to consider as well as the licenses of the individual databases. The licenses regulate various aspects of use. For example, they regulate the duration of use and the possible uses or state whether the image may be modified in any way. The licenses also state where you may use the image, how you must indicate the source - and very importantly: whether it may be used for commercial purposes at all. Licenses therefore define the framework within which you are allowed to use the respective image - and each database has its own guidelines for this. It is therefore important to read these carefully. Free stock image providers also very often advertise "royalty-free" images. But beware: there are a few things to bear in mind here too. 


Copyright, trademark law, personal rights, property release - or: The stumbling blocks are endless

Let’s Talk Legal: Lizenzfrei bedeutet nicht „rechtsfrei“. Und genau hier liegt das Problem. Diese Bilddatenbanken sind wie Wikipedia. Jeder kann etwas hinzufügen. Ohne Quellenangabe, ohne Überprüfung. 

Und so passiert es leider sehr oft, dass es eben nicht die Urheber selbst sind, die Ihre Fotos diesen Plattformen zur Verfügung stellen – sondern Dritte. Auch bei „lizenzfreien“ Bildern bleibt das Urheberrecht immer bei dem Fotografen – es sei denn er überträgt dieses schriftlich. Wenn der Urheber des Bildes aber gar nicht weiß, dass seine Bilder auf solchen Datenbanken hochgeladen wurden, kann er auch das Urheberrecht dazu nicht abtreten. Eine Nutzung ist in dem Fall rechtswidrig und Abmahnungsfähig. Ein Umstand, der durchaus auch Unsplash, Pexels & Co bekannt ist. Ein kurzer Blick in die AGBs zeigt: verantwortlich für die Überprüfung und Einhaltung aller möglichen Rechte ist der Nutzer. Bedeutet: im Zweifel haftest Du

If you do a little research on Google, it quickly becomes clear that users of such images are often warned because the photographer knew nothing about the publication. There are even said to be real "copyright trolls" who deliberately upload stolen photos, "trace" them using special software and Google Image Search, just to be able to issue warnings to users and thus enrich themselves. After all, copyright infringements are anything but cheap. In addition to usage fees that are due retrospectively, there are often claims for damages and legal and court costs. Especially as a small business or solo self-employed person, costs that have not been taken into account can quickly threaten your existence. 

Of course, not every photo is uploaded illegally to these platforms, but it is still important to be aware of this risk if you want to use stock photos. Whether free of charge or not. In addition to copyright law, there are several other laws to observe. 

Surely you can use advertising photos provided free of charge by companies themselves on Unsplash without hesitation, right? You can use photos provided by companies as long as you adhere to the terms of use. But images depicting companies and their products are a different matter. In this case, different laws and legal frameworks apply. 

Some of you have probably already noticed that the logos of the products have been removed from some stock photos (e.g. the Apple logo or the Coca-Cola logo). There is a good reason for this, because if branded products and logos are depicted on a photo , action can be taken against the user of the photo under trademark law or within the scope of design protection. Even if the user owns the copyright to the image itself. It depends on the type of use: if you want to use the image to advertise your own online shop/products and the brand is clearly visible or if you want to benefit from the good image of the brand depicted, then you need the rights holder's permission to use the image - otherwise you could face a warning. This also applies if you cannot see the logo as such, but can still clearly assign the product to a specific company. 

This means: If you sell coka cola, you may also show a picture of a cola bottle, but if you want to sell home-brewed lemonade, no cola may be shown. 

You need a so-called "property release" if a building is visible in the image, that was NOT photographed from a public space. This includes, for example, photos taken by drone - but even a normal bedroom requires a property release if the furnishings can be identified as the home of a specific person.   

And last but not least, a so-called model release is required for the publication of photos with people. This means that the persons depicted give their consent that they may be depicted and the photo may be used (commercially). Again, in case of doubt, it is up to the user to obtain this consent. 

The legal framework applies not only to free stock images, but to any kind of photos that are published. Therefore, when using images that you have not taken yourself, you should generally inform yourself about the licenses and existing consents.

As with so many other things, where there's no plaintiff, there's no judge. Whether you continue to access Unsplash & the other databases, take out a stock photo subscription or invest in a business shoot is entirely up to you. So it doesn't mean you have to do without these types of photos. We also use stock photos on marketingminded(click here for our favorite platforms). But it's important to know the disadvantages and dangers when using stock photos, as well as the legal situation. Only if you are fully informed yourself, you can make an decision wether you want to use stock photos or not. 


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