Photographer in Legal Battle Over Unsplash Image After a User Uploaded the Image to Photo-Sharing Site Illegally

Photographer in Legal Battle Over Unsplash Image After a User Uploaded the Image to Photo-Sharing Site Illegally

A photographer has landed himself in legal trouble after using a photo from free licensing site Unsplash. He was hit with a copyright infringement notice, demanding a fee. Upon trying to find the image again on Unsplash, he discovered it had been removed from the site.

The use of Unsplash and free image licensing has been the subject of debate between photographers online, and this case is sure to only stir the pot.

Photographer and business owner Simon Palmer recently used a stock image from Unsplash for his blog. His team had a brief of “copyright-cleared images” only, so naturally, they assumed images from Unsplash would come without issue, given the nature of the site.

However, Palmer has now been contacted by Copytrack, who demanded a fee. Upon trying to seek out the image on Unsplash, both the photo and the photographer who uploaded it have seemingly disappeared.

Palmer tells The Phoblographer:

I contacted Unsplash, and raised a ticket with them, and until today, I hadn’t had much communication aside from one of the folks at Unsplash saying they would pass it on to the person who handles the legal issues.

It’s here the story gets messy. Upon doing some digging, Unsplash found the image Palmer used was not actually owned by the user who uploaded it, thus meaning the usual license provided by the platform is not valid. The email from Unsplash breaking the bad news also admitted it’s a common occurrence and that “often, photographers are unaware that their images are uploaded on the platform and most would certainly not give away their images for free.” 

Copytrack are now insisting that failure to pay will result in further legal action. They also point out that the image at the center of all of this is not covered by the Unsplash license, as it has a recognizable person within it. This is indicated in Section 5B of their terms of use. It’s a valid point and one that calls into question the integrity of Unsplash itself, given that it is essentially bating photographers into a trap, misleading them into using photos that aren’t protected by its own policy.

Despite Palmer raising the point that Unsplash should be liable for images they license through their site, Copytrack’s website FAQ reveals the operator of the website where the image was displayed remains primarily responsible for the infringement, regardless of what any third party said.

Palmer is concerned he’s the victim of copyright trolling, and that he’s been set up. After all, it’s easy, right? Upload a photo to a site like Unsplash, wait for someone to use it, then remove it, and file a claim.

What this holds for the future of Unsplash remains to be seen.

Jack Alexander's picture

A 28-year-old self-taught photographer, Jack Alexander specialises in intimate portraits with musicians, actors, and models.

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Previous comments

That is the original photographers business what they should do with legitimate images they created. Photographers all over the world offer their images free to use since the majority do not do it for monetary gain. Instagram has made a business off of the simple biology of how likes make people feel. Some people just share because they want that feeling. That is what sites like Unsplash do as well. In this case, the photographer got caught and needs to pay for the use. A simple Google image search before using it would have been prudent.
Unsplash does not verify copyright, ownership, property release or model release and there is the liability they, like all content curating sites, should be responsible for. Cure the illness, not the symptoms.

That's the point, the photographer did take and used the image wlthout checking if Unslashed had all proper documentation. Had he paid even 20cent in a recorded transaction, he could demonstrate his intention was legit. But he has nothing and that's one strong reason for anyone to point at him. I have photographers contact me to use images of mine for publications. They always pay me ahead of the use on their own with a check or paypal to record the transaction. There are rules in this world, people can make their own, but the legal system is what it is. I pardon anyone for what ever they have done wrong, but you know what, the law doesn't care what I think.

That's nothing new. Same happend many times with random people uploading other people's works to Wikimedia and adding CC Licenses to it. Unsplash is just taking it to the next level.

As a company: If you want to use a photo, pay the rights-holder for it and make sure the contract confirms they own the rights on the photograph.

There is absolutely no other way currently existing, that would keep you safe from situations as mentioned in the article if you use photos for free, as I don't believe any photographer would give you photos for free *AND* do the paperwork for you as well. You get what you pay for.

There are a number of valid comments on here but I think the core point has been overlooked. It boils down to STEALING! It is as if, the culprit who uploaded the photo which was NOT his/her work broke into the photographers premises and took the print and/or downloaded the file directly from the photographers computer, scanned the print and then uploaded same. As I said, it is nothing more than STEALING and is, in all civilised countries a prosecutable offence.

Whether it was a photo, a pencil or the cash box it was STEALING!

We see this as a daily occurrence on social media.