Some lessons are more expensive than others.

Last Friday I answered the door to find the FedEx guy standing there with a big envelope for me.. I was a bit puzzled because I didn’t remember ordering anything recently, but I signed for it and eagerly went to my office to open it.

Imagine my surprise and dismay to find that it was a letter from a  company called Masterfile, stating that I had, and I am quoting directly here;

 “published one(1) of Masterfile’s images on the above noted website…This image is represented exclusively by Masterfile. You can verify Masterfile’s ownership by visiting and entering the respective image code in the search engine. Masterfile can find no reference to this image having been licensed for reproduction on your website. The usage above directly violates Masterfile’s and the artist’s rights to reproduce, adapt, display, distribute, and/or create derivative works.”

Matserfile wanted me to not only take the image down, but to pay a retroactive licensing fee of $2,430.00 on behalf of the artist. My reaction? Shock, dismay, alarm, panic! I don’t have a big working budget, and this would take a huge bite out if it.

Now, the image in question was just a part of another, larger image which had been given to me by a client. It was located on a page of my site inside a development folder, and had been used on one page only to demonstrate a design layout to a single client, over the course of a week or two. I had sent the URL of the page to the prospective client, and as far as I know we were the only two people to ever see that page.

That page was not accessible to anyone who did not have the actual complete URL, and further, it was not accessible to search engines. When the client did not sign with me, I forgot about it, and so it stayed on my site, an orphaned file.

I had forgotten a very important rule: never assume knowledge on the part of the client. I had assumed that the client knew that downloading images found online did not confer the right to use the image.

But Masterfile is extremely aware that this occurs, and apparently uses a third party service which has software that goes trolling the ‘Net with image recognition software, and reports back whenever an image, or part of an image, registered with Masterfile is found. Then Masterfile sends out the letter, demanding payment and threatening to go to court otherwise.

I immediately checked online, and sure enough, the part of the image in question was in fact registered with Masterfile.

I then called Masterfile on the phone, and explained my situation. While they understood that I had not knowingly stolen the image, and that I had no way to recover any costs from the person who had given it to me, they still insisted that I was liable since the image had been found on my site, and told me they’d be happy to see me in court if I did not pay up.

They did finally agree to a lesser fee. (And while it is a pretty image, I wonder what percentage of the fees collected by Masterfile will actually go to the artist?)

I have standing accounts with several online image sellers – I purchase images for use on the web all the time. The most I have ever paid for an image is $100, for the exclusive rights to a photograph. Usually the price is less than $20, and sometimes as low a a buck or two.

I can understand paying big bucks to a graphic designer for an image to be used in a widespread marketing campaign, but the idea of paying into the three and four figures for an image to be used on a single blog post boggles my mind!

From now on I’ll be sure to educate my clients about ensuring they have the right to use whatever content they send me.

Some lessons are more expensive than others, and this is one I’ll never forget.