9 Viral Controversies and Mishaps That Rocked the Stock Photography Industry

For years, stock photography has gotten heat for misuse and improper licensing, copyright violations, and a range of other blunders.

Stock photo mishaps have a tendency to go viral on social media, popular blogs, and magazines, have been constant fodder for content marketing, and have even made it to late night comedy shows. From a vegan magazine passing off stock photos of actual meat as vegetarian food and campaigns using stock photos of generic models to push political ideologies, to controversies over licensing and image rights, it’s rare to go more than a month without a strange story, scandal or embarrassingly hilarious mixup related to stock image licensing.

We compiled 9 curious and captivating stock photography controversies and mishaps from the past two decades. We hope our efforts to move content licensing to the blockchain will create a safer, more transparent environment for buyers to properly use images and avoid such issues in the future, but in the meantime, we’ll be following these controversies with a big bowl of popcorn.

1)#WalkAway campaign missuses stock images to represent real people and political ideologies. July 2018

In July 2018, New York resident Brandon Straka launched a video campaign presenting himself as a “former liberal” who had “walked away” from the Democratic party to embrace conservative politics. After his video went viral, memes began flooding conservative circles, pairing photos of so-called “real people” with personal testimonials on why they, too, were stepping away from the Democrats.

However, later that month, it became clear that many of the photos were actually commercial images available to license on Shutterstock. It’s unclear whether these memes were created by anyone officially associated with the campaign, but they were shared by several prominent conservative figures.

This story of image misuse — and violation of Shutterstock’s licensing terms — went similarly viral, with coverage in The Hill, Fast Company, and various other publications. Late night host Stephen Colbert turned the misstep into comic gold, creating a joke meme using a Shutterstock image of a futuristic woman sleeping beside an ear of corn, paired with the text “The Democrats want to regulate my virtual reality corn. #Walkaway.”

2) Vegan magazine passes iStock photos of actual meat as vegan dishes
April 2011.

Image via Petapixel

In April 2011, a prominent vegan blogger discovered that the magazine Veg News had been misrepresenting stock photos of meat as vegan dishes. To illustrate one recipe, editors had retouched an iStock photo of actual barbeque ribs to represent vegan spare ribs, paired with the caption “Here at VNHQ, we devour these savory sauce-covered spare ribs as often as possible.” In others, iStock photos of hamburgers, ice cream, and other foods were presented as being meat and dairy free.

The story went viral with coverage including CNN, The New York Times, and the prominent photography blog Petapixel, ultimately pushing the publication to offer an official letter of apology, stating “…sadly, there are very few specifically vegan images offered by stock companies… We would love nothing more than to use only vegan photography shot by vegan photographers, and we hope to be there soon.”

3) Getty sues Google over high-resolution Google-image-search.
April 2016

In April 2016, Getty filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google, accusing the tech giant of stealing Getty’s images for their search engine, shifting attention away from Getty’s site, and making high-resolution images available through its search results. After being embroiled in this for over a year, the companies settled in February 2018 with plans to partner. Google also put greater restrictions on users from being able to simply drag and drop high-res images from their image search, hopefully preventing individuals from using them without a proper license.

4) Renowned photographer Carol Highsmith sues Getty Images for $1Billion. December 2015-September 2016.

The Carol Highsmith Collection via Library of Congress

2016 was a big year for Getty-related lawsuits. This time, Getty was in the defendant’s seat. Just a few months after they filed the antitrust allegations against Google, photographer Carol Highsmith sued the agency for $1Billion under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) for copyright violation and improper attribution for more than 18,000 of her images. The photographer had made her life’s work available for free for public use through the Library of Congress, and allegedly Getty was relicensing them to customers for substantial fees.

What makes this story uniquely fascinating is how Highsmith discovered the violation in the first place. She said in her lawsuit that she learned of Getty’s use of her images in December 2015, when the agency sent her a letter charging her with copyright infringement for displaying one of her own images on her website, and demanding that she pay for its use. And the story gets better — shortly after, she learned that Getty had been sending similar demand letters to individuals who had properly used her images via her gift to the Library of Congress. Getty countered in September 2016, arguing that — because the images were in the public domain — it had full rights to resell them. By November the case was settled out of court.

5) Samsung Brazil tweets stock photos — likely shot with a digital SLR — as examples of images from their Galaxy A8. 
August 2018

This summer, as reported in DesignTaxi, in a series of tweets similar to Apple’s #shotonaniphone campaign, Samsung tweeted images supposedly representing the quality of their new camera. It turns out that several of these were actually images licensed through Getty and very likely not shot with a Samsung Galaxy phone.

Brasilian twitter user @Feliperas discovered this mishap, calling them out publically with screenshots of the tweets before Samsung could take them down, saying in Portuguese “Quer enganar quem, @SamsungBrasil” (Who are you trying to fool, @SamsungBrasil?”). Samsung ultimately responded with an apology and acknowledgment, saying that they sometimes use other, non-Samsung images when targeting certain users.

6) Presidential candidate Jeb Bush uses footage shot in Cornwall, England to represent the American people and landscape.
September 2015

This clip of a field in Cornwall, England was used by Jeb Bush’s campaign to represent the American landscape.

Back to politics — which seems to be a frequent hotbed of image misuse — Republican candidate Jeb Bush used content from Shutterstock, iStock and Pond 5 in a campaign video during the 2015 presidential primaries to represent optimism towards the future of the American people. However, according to this story published in Politico, the editors behind his campaign used a video clip of the sun rising over a field in Cornwall, England — not the United States. And another scene in the video, supposedly representing an American construction worker, was shot in Southeast Asia, purchased from stock footage library, Pond5.

7) “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” points to problems of gender representation in stock photography and inspires larger discussion and Lean-In collaboration. 
January 2011

Visual literacy buffs will love this. Not quite a licensing or legal controversy, this simple yet subversive collection of appropriated stock images, originally published without any accompanying text on The Hairpin in January 2011 went viral — likely beyond what its author Edith Zimmerman ever imagined. Zimmerman used the common, absurd microstock cliché of — you guessed it –— images of women laughing alone while eating salad, all with the same slender body type, to draw attention to a larger and more pandemic pattern of sexist tropes within stock photography.

Since stock photography has been so commonly used by startups and media giants alike, this piece helped surface a building concern that many stock images can negatively shape ideas about gender roles on a larger scale. It inspired many articles and critical discussion, a Tumblr blog, and even a play in 2016 (the first ever inspired by a meme) by Sheila Callaghan, a writer for TV’s “Shameless.” A few years after the initial post, Getty announced a partnership with Lean In and created a collection focused on breaking racial and gendered stereotypes, which inspired many independent collections with similar goals.

8)Everywhere Girl” and the man whose life was ruined by a single stock photo. (beginning in 1996)

“Everywhere Girl” and Niccolo Massariello. Images via New York Post.

Again, these are more “blunders” than “controversies” but the next two speak to one of the biggest problems in the recent history of non-exclusive royalty stock photo licensing: multiple publications, brands, and organizations using the same image on a large scale:

Around 1996, before microstock was even a thing, model Jen Kind (then Jen Anderson) posed for a stock photo shoot in Portland, Oregon as a pensive, inquiring college student, pen in hand, ready to learn. Her image wound up being published thousands of times on book covers, in self-help guides, and major advertising campaigns. Anderson’s likeness embodied a certain widely malleable narrative that photo editors, art directors, and marketers could use to illustrate a range of projects, and led her to be branded “Everywhere Girl.”

“I still go to this Red Robin outside of Portland, and there’s a huge picture of me, half the size of the wall,” Kind, told the New York Post in this 2017 article. “Both my niece and my nephew, in different states and at different grade levels, found my picture in their textbooks.”

More recently, on a more damaging note, Niccolo Massariello, soon after being comically photographed by Ukrainian stock photographer Nick Starichenko, discovered that his image landed a much more embarrassing use. In a 2017 interview for Vice, later covered by the New York Post, Massariello recounts how Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional used his image — and tweeted it out to the publication’s 4.11 million followers — to illustrate a piece about paraphimosis, a painful penis condition that can lead to gangrene. Ouch.

9) 2016 North Carolina senatorial candidate misrepresents stock footage of Africans to depict African Americans. 
August 2016.

As we noted earlier in this article in the case of Jeb Bush, stock footage has been a key component of political campaigns for the past decade. When it’s a simple background or fairly generic, it can be a budget and time-saving resource that ideally causes no harm. However, as the Washington Post reported in the case of 2016 candidate Se. Richard Burr, when used incorrectly, it’s embarrassing, can paint a candidate as insincere, and can damage a campaign to a point of no return. In the above campaign clip, which aimed to illustrate Burr’s support and trustworthiness for the state’s black community, a classroom of reportedly African American students come into view.

To the unsuspecting eye, viewers might have trusted the video, believing that the children were North Carolina residents. However, upon some light research, it was discovered that the clip was actually students on the continent of Africa — not African American residents of the candidates campaigning state. Another problem that could have been prevented by some quick research.

These nine examples are just a few controversies illustrating the precarious nature of stock licensing, and the need to editors, content creators and all types of end-users to stay mindful and on top of how they’re creating, keywording and licensing images. Got an example we’ve missed? Feel free to share it in the comments section below!


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