03:14 AM

The $10 billion question: Why is online image theft so widely accepted?

[Guest post by Lawrence Gould, CEO and co-founder of the microstock company Vivozoom (www.vivozoom.com), he was previously the CFO of Getty Images.]

By Lawrence Gould

Could it get any easier?

Web designers, advertisers and bloggers can choose from millions of pictures - everything from shots of Afghan voters lining up to cast ballots in their presidential election to one of the sun setting behind the Golden Gate Bridge - thanks to traditional stock and microstock photo companies delivering the right, high-quality image for any need.

But as users have gained unprecedented access to these images, the combined theft of stock and microstock photos comes to as much as $10 billion a year. As evidenced by the recent controversy over the Los Angeles Times lifting copyrighted, all-rights reserved photos of wildfires from the image-hosting site Flickr, confusion over image rights reigns supreme.

File sharing in the music industry has led to the targeting of the worst violators with court injunctions or hefty fines. An industry-backed proposal approved by the French Parliament on Sept. 15 and another scheduled to go before the British Parliament in November calls for cutting the Internet connection of the most active file sharers.

This comes just as microstock is drawing battle lines through consolidation - Shutterstock announced its acquisition of BigStockPhoto on Sept. 23 - and the addition of image warranties - on Sept. 15, iStockphoto followed Vivozoom's lead in offering a guarantee against any legal challenges to its images by covering the expenses of a claim.

Yet when it comes to stock and microstock companies, rigorously enforced theft-busting measures are uncommon. According to PicScout, a company that uses image-recognition technology to track content on the Internet, some 85 percent of the rights-managed images detected on commercial websites are being misused, as reported by its customers over the last seven years.

Stock image libraries are not the only ones to lose out: Photojournalist Leif Skoogfors has risked his life covering armed conflicts in Northern Ireland and Bosnia for Time and Newsweek. In spite of his hard work, he has lost $180,000 in income on two of his photos widely lifted from the Web.

"This is not an isolated incident," said Skoogfors' attorney Nancy R. 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. "It is the same copyright infringement issue that the music industry is fighting. But who has more money and therefore more power to lobby the government?"

Tools designed to search for photos online, such as Google Images, have undermined the copyright concept. When thousands of photos are easily located and copied at no cost with a couple of mouse clicks, where's the incentive to pay? Like Napster, this has encouraged theft.

Stock and microstock theft totals $10 billion a year, based on PicScout's 85 percent figure and the estimated $2 billion annual stock image market. With such staggering loses, the stock industry should feel compelled to respond with the same kind of vigilance as the music industry. But this is the stock industry's dirty little secret, a cocktail of apathy, incompetence and greed.

"Nearly everyone who uses unauthorized copyrighted photos has a good chance of getting away with it," Skoogfors said. "Often, they aren't even aware they're illegal."

Photographers have detailed on such sites as the MicroStock Diaries (www.microstockdiaries.com) instances of their pictures, distributed through larger stock companies, uploaded by violators to competing stock and microstock outlets and sold as their own. The photographers are now finding themselves having to police the sites while the agencies fail to address the thefts.

No one's denying the benefits that come with such ease of use online. Photographers want publishers to find their pictures. Distributors require a thriving business. But in a culture where theft is euphemistically known as sharing, where 17 of every 20 stock images used on commercial sites are stolen, how can anyone expect photographers and producers to make a living let alone survive in an environment where such costly crimes are met with silence?