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Why Buy the Cow When You Can Get the Download for Free?

internet-download-free.jpgThere's no image--not an aerial shot of the Taj Mahal at dawn or of me as a baby--that isn't available for someone to download online. And chances are, most entrepreneurs and bloggers are doing it without paying for it.

Online photo theft is arguably one of the most rampant, underreported crimes on the internet. Perhaps for the first time, the problem has been quantified: Lawrence Gould, CEO of the microstock photo service Vivozoom today announced that as much as $10 billion is lost by the photo industry from the combined theft of stock and microstock images.

Throwing around a figure like $10 billion is bound to be met with skepticism and cynicism, as is Vivozoom positioning itself as the microstock company with the first, most extensive guarantee that its images are safe to use. The company backs that with a promise to cover any legal challenges up to $25,000. But Gould, who was the CFO of Getty Images when it went public, is a veteran of the field who can speak about the subject with authority. His estimate is based on the findings of the image-tracking services of PicScout, which determined that as much as 85 percent of all rights-managed images found on commercial websites are misused, as reported by its customers over the last seven years.

The stock image market industry, which nets $2 billion annually, has become accustomed to unauthorized use of its photos. The two largest stock companies in the field, Getty Images and Corbis, report a combined 112,000 examples of copyright infringement a year. Even if the $10 billion figure is in question, improper use of online images is an accepted practice, as common perhaps--especially among bloggers--as music fans sharing copies of their favorite music downloads.

"Online access has perhaps become two easy and tools like Google Images undermine the concept of image copyright," Gould says. "When anyone can easily find thousands of images and copy them with a couple of mouse clicks, it's understandable why so many people don't realize there is a cost associated with the use of some images."

An editor at a major technology news outlet--someone with experience at one of the most respected U.S. daily newspapers--admitted to me to lifting images off the Web for his organization's site. In his opinion, if this problem were so serious, image distributors would crack down on violators in the same way the music industry went after the likes of Napster. "Maybe I run the risk of getting caught," he said, "but who's going to be able to change that? I don't know that anybody really cares."

But in recent years, some stock image providers, including Getty Images, have claimed copyright infringement by actively contacting website owners and bloggers demanding the immediate removal of unauthorized images from their sites. In doing so, many have gone a step further by demanding settlements--in some cases, for as much as $8,000 per offending image.

Beyond stock image libraries, photographers like Leif Skoogfors have something to say. A photojournalist whose four-decade career has put him into war zones in Central America and the Balkans has risked his life for the perfect shot. He now fights a desperate battle to stop web designers and bloggers from lifting his images without paying for them. On two photos alone, he has lost $180,000 in income, he says.

"Nearly everyone who uses unauthorized copyrighted photos has a good chance of getting away with it," Skoogfors says.

In many cases, he adds, violators are unaware that using the images infringes on any copyrights. Simply put, our culture has reached a point where anything on the Web is viewed as free for the taking. And these incidents are not isolated, said Skoogfors' attorney, Nancy Frandsen, who specializes in copyrights and trademarks for the law firm of Woodcock Washburn and has represented both sides in the larger intellectual property dispute. They're also the same copyright infringement issue that the music industry is fighting with substantially more money and power with which to lobby the government.

Other photographers have detailed examples of image theft on such sites as the MicroStock Diaries. In one instance, a shooter reported that his photos, distributed through a larger stock company, were uploaded by violators to competing stock and microstock outlets and sold as their own. Photographers have been forced to police the sites while the agencies fail to address the thefts in any comprehensive fashion.

No one can deny that online image theft is extensive, that bloggers, entrepreneurs, start-ups, and commercial sites regularly include images for which no one was paid. Even if $10 billion is an estimate that goes challenged, it underscores a philosophy entrenched among not just chronic file sharers but the masses: Why buy the cow when you can get the download for free?

Mikal E. Belicove is a market positioning, social media, and management consultant specializing in website usability and business blogging. His latest book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Facebook, is now available at bookstores. For more information, visit MikalBelicove.com.

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