A Fredericton-based photographer has learned a tough lesson about stock photography and copyright after he discovered his picture of a local bridge in the snow prominently featured in a calendar, cards and throw blanket.
Michael Stemm, who founded the videography company Down to Earth Productions in 2016, often takes photographs in the city.
In December 2017, he snapped a photo of the walking bridge on a snowy evening.
In February of this year, he decided to try Shutterstock. The stock photography business allows people to upload their photos as part of their royalty-free library.
“I watched a YouTube video on other sources of income for photography,” he said. “I just randomly uploaded one picture.”
Stemm says he never checked his account again, and never read the terms and agreement.
Fast forward a few months later, and his friends began messaging him with their Walmart discoveries.
As detailed in his Facebook video, which has been viewed more than 38,000 times, Stemm explains his friends found a calendar, greeting cards and large throw blanket featuring his photo.
He says he was shocked, and decided to find out how it was possible.
“I’m not going to lie, I feel taken advantage of here because here in Fredericton, I also sell lots of prints and Christmas cards and holiday cards with my pictures on them,” he says in the video.
It turns out Newfoundland-based Islandwide Distributors (IWD) had purchased the photo from Shutterstock, and was using it in their merchandise. Stemm says he spoke with the company, which told him they made 500,000 units of the calendars and cards.
When Stemm checked his Shutterstock account, he noticed he had received US$1.88 for the transaction. He can’t actually access that money until his account reaches $50.
“I can’t even get a double-double at Timmies,” he said.
According to Shutterstock’s website, the company offers standard licences and enhanced licences. Both licences are perpetual in duration and allow for unlimited digital use. Only the enhanced licence allows for the photos to be used in merchandise.
In an email to Global News, Islandwide Distributors Ltd. said they have the proper licensing.
“The only comment we will give at this time is we have the enhanced version of the license from Shutterstock,” the email reads.
Photostock has also confirmed with Global News their compliance team is investigating Stemm’s concerns.
Marc Belliveau, a Halifax-based copyright specialist who has worked 25 years in the field, says while Stemm may feel the situation is unfair, it’s consistent with copyright law.
“It appears from his video that he actually submitted that photo to Shutterstock, which then empowers Shutterstock to licence it to third parties,” he said.
“You just get a payment. You don’t continue to get royalties if you’ve sold your photograph.”
Walmart has reached out to Stemm in his Facebook video’s comments. He says he has sent his contact information to them and is waiting to hear back.
Meanwhile, he admits he’s learned his lesson.
“Basically, don’t use Shutterstock or any stock website without knowing what kind of implication there could be,” he said.
But he hasn’t ruled out submitting photos in the future, with one caveat.
“Probably none that I actually sell myself … my best work,” he said.