There’s a popular misconception that it is dangerous in some way to use imagery from a microstock content site, such as iStockphoto.com .  Dangerous in a legal sense.  That someone may come back someday and say that you don’t have the right to use a certain image.

Rest assured that buying an image from iStockphoto is very safe.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read of a buyer who followed the licensing terms, having a legal issue.

Let’s take a look at several things that can assure you, the buyer.  Keep in mind, I’m not a lawyer, but a sensible person who reads a lot 🙂 .  Note that in the following paragraphs, I’m addressing using imagery in a commercial context (advertisements and promotions), and not particularly editorial (educational and news pieces).  While you are free to also use iStock content in an editorial context, iStockphoto does not offer a section of unreleased (model or property) content, such as celebrities or newsworthy events.  I believe this is to help protect buyers who may be confused about the differences between the two types of uses.

The Model Release

When an image is used in a commercial context, such as an advertisement, or food packaging, or book cover, there needs to be permission given from the model in the content.

This permission is communicated in what is known as the model release.  You can view the current iStockphoto model release here .

by signing this release I hereby give the Photographer/ Filmmaker and Assigns my permission to license the Images and to use the Images in any Media for any purpose (except pornographic or
defamatory) which may include, among others, advertising, promotion, marketing and packaging for any product or service.

….

I acknowledge and agree that I have no further right to additional Consideration or accounting, and that I will make no further claim for any reason to Photographer/Filmmaker and/or Assigns.

So, with the release, the model is giving permission to use their likeness, and assurance that they will not be coming back in the future with any claims of any sort.  The release does offer the model some protection as well, regarding allowed uses, and the iStockphoto license agreement is very clear about what is allowed and what is not.  See section 4.a. of the agreement.

iStockphoto has always required a model release for images where the subject is clearly recognizable by the average person.  This used to be the industry “standard”, if you will.  There has been some concern lately that this standard might not offer enough protection to the buyer, so iStock has stepped up it’s requirement for a model release to include any photo where a person is the main subject, recognizable or not.  See this article’s section about contextual model releases: Evolving IP Standards .  This new standard started around January of 2008, so there has been a reduction in the number of “grab shots” of random people in the collection.  Some earlier content that might fall under this new standard may not have a release, such as people from the back or someone from the waist down, but to be honest, I’ve not read of any legal issues with images of that sort.

While the image details page does not currently tell you if there is a release for an image, you can rest assured that any image where the subject(s) are identifiable has a release.  If you have a question about an earlier piece of content, you can always contact support for a definite answer as to whether a release is attached.  We, as contributors, are making an effort to have this information provided on the details page.

As an aside, these are two great places to read about releases and legal issues:

  1. Carolyn Wright’s photoattorney.com
  2. Dan Hellar’s photography website

Property Release

Like a model release, the property release is permission from the owner/creator of recognizable property in the content to use that property in an image sold for commercial use.  Typically, on iStockphoto, the property release is used in an instance where another person’s art is visible in the content, like a painting on a wall, or a sculpture in a park.  There is a time limit on a person/heir’s right to protect their work, and that right usually goes away after 70 years after their death.  So you will see a lot of very old sculptures (early 1900’s and earlier) in public places on iStock.  What you won’t see is famous paintings in museums, because the museums will control the publicity rights of the pieces they own, and that includes commercial photography.  You may see modern sculptures if commissioned by a public government, and the government has the right to assign commercial rights to the photographer.

Another usage, is for actual property.  Images of publicly visible buildings taken from publicly accessible roads tend to be fair game for commercial photography.  An exception is property that has been trademarked, or is part of a trademarked logo, such as the famous Pebble Beach Lone Cypress .  Or the copyrighted nighttime light display at the Eiffel Tower .  Sometimes these things are ok in an image, as long as it is not the main subject of the image.  The London Eye is not permitted as a main subject on iStockphoto, but it can be included as a minor part of the London skyline.

After some resistance from the photographic community, the need for some property releases may be relaxing.  Witness the famous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame case, wherein it was determined that trademark protection for a piece of property may not actually be that easy to achieve for the property owner.

Rest assured, the iStockphoto inspection team is very vigilant and up to date when it comes to property releases, and they will err on the side of caution.

Conclusion

While, ultimately, in my opinion (and most that I’ve read), the onus to use a photo correctly falls on the buyer (and is stated so in the iStockphoto legal agreement), iStockphoto makes every reasonable effort to protect the, perhaps unknowledgable in these matters, buyer when it comes to properly released images.  While there is no buyer warranty provided as such, iStockphoto does their best to provide content that is safe for the buyer to use.  This is not some amateur photo sharing site where there is no oversight on these types of things.  This is a business, and is run as such.

Feel safe to purchase away!

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