We live in a visual world and pictures can be a very important element of blogging. Not only do they help portray the post’s intended message, but if you’re sharing on social media, those sites pull pictures for their previews. If all you have is a logo on your page, that’s not going to do much good for attracting clicks.

But what if you don’t have a picture? There are a number of websites where you can get pictures free to use for commercial use. These include Pexels, Unsplash, Pixabay, etc. Photographers post photos here in hopes of attracting new clients, gaining some back links to their work, and/or scoring a monetary “tip”. Each site has a license page explaining that the pictures are free to use without attribution, but don’t let that fool you into thinking you can just download and post.

MAKE SURE YOU TRACK EVERY PICTURE YOU DOWNLOAD. I’ll give you a real-life example why.

Stock photo websites hire companies to track down people infringing on copyright. These are people who use pictures on websites without the proper license. They send a threatening email to the person demanding a fee be paid or they’ll send it on to the lawyers who will then sue you for thousands of dollars. Of course, settling is the best option.

Sometimes people steal photos and upload them to the free sites. These eventually get taken down. Sometimes people unknowingly use them and get targeted by the companies looking for copyright infringers. Not fun at all. They do not believe ignorance is an excuse.

Then, there are people who work for these companies who are really just shooting at fish in a barrel in hopes of getting someone. That’s what almost happened to me at my day job…almost. We were sent one of the standard fill-in-the-blank warning letters and a request for a $500 payment for a picture we used on our website. Ironically, it was a picture I had only used as a placeholder and had already replaced, so they found it cached.

I downloaded the picture from Unsplash. The company that contacted us was representing a website/app that allows photographers of all levels to upload their photos. The photos can be listed for free or added to their marketplace. When added to the marketplace, the photographer can choose non-exclusive or exclusive, which gives some added benefits and the website more control over the photo. Well, the original photographer of the photo had uploaded it to this website as non-exclusive and uploaded it to multiple other sites, including Unsplash.

The company did not do their due diligence, and I highly suspect that they just browse the client’s site, pick any picture, and try to find someone using it illegally. If they catch someone off-guard and get them to pay the fee, even if they have the license to use the picture, they don’t really care. They just collected money from that person and will get a cut. Luckily, we had kept a record.

I contacted the original photographer who stated he was in fact the one who had uploaded the picture and had listed it as non-exclusive, which meant we had right to use it under the Unsplash licensing agreement. We sent the company the proof and they marked the situation settled, claiming they didn’t know it was on Unsplash. Which leads to the question – if the photo was listed as non-exclusive when it was uploaded, why were they trying to claim copyright for it?

Fish. In. A. Barrel. Cover your butt. Keep a record.