The Indie Author’s Guide to Stock Photography

If you’re writing / releasing a book, there’s a very high chance your cover art will use stock photography. Just take a look at any Fiction best-seller list, and you’ll notice that 85% or more of the covers use stock photos, or ‘composite artworks’ built up using mutliple  stock elements.

Commissioning graphic designers / composite artists is a great way to score a high-impact cover on a budget, but it’s not without its pitfalls!! Unfortunately there are dodgy designers out there who ignore global intellectual property laws, or outright steal what they need to make a quick buck.

The net result of being in breach of copyright can be catastrophic, as the author YOU’D be liable for the designer’s malpractice – and could result in serious legal trouble!!

Fear not dear friends… This guide will give you (the author) a quick headsup on what to look out for, and bring to light some of the stock photography legalities to watch out for.

First things first…

I have to fess up and tell you that I’m not a lawyer – and I don’t pretend to be one on the internet. I’m a professional cover artist with 20 years experience in the trenches, AND the owner of a stock photography platform – so I know a thing or two about a thing or two in this arena.

HOWEVER, what I say here isn’t legal advice – so if you’re really worried – please do consult with a professional!!

The information in this guide is a basic layman’s overview of stock photography, and the common pitfalls that are faced by authors and publishers…

Pop Culture IP

We’ll start with an easy one… If your designer incorporates ANY intellectual property owned by any company or individual that ISN’T licensed for stock photography useage, that’s a big no-no.

What does that mean exactly?

Here’s an example. This ‘stock photo’ is available on Pixabay (a free stock photo website) – it’s a Halo Elite monster toy, and the IP belongs to Microsoft Studios.

IF your artist uses the above image in a composite for your book cover, and Microsoft catch wind of it… you could have the legal might of a Fortune 100 company descending upon you!! Scary stuff…

Many of these titans are incredibly litigous (Disney, Games Workshop et al), so it’s really not worth the grief using any licensed IP on your cover art.

If you recognise ANY element that is from pop culture, video games, film, tv etc. it’s got to go.

Online Artist’s IP

Now this one is tricky, because you may not recognise elements that could have been stolen from artists who share their work online.

This could be digitally painted background elements, or frankensteined parts of unlicensed photographs – as the client, it’s pretty much impossible to know if this kind of breach has taken place.

Fortunately this kind of occurence is VERY rare in the professional sphere – but it does happen occassionally…

The best thing to do to protect yourself in this instance, is ensure that you’re working with a PROFESSIONAL (preferably fulltime) artist. AVOID websites like 99Designs and Fiverr – which is where the vast majority of unscrupulous designers operate.

Whilst you’ll never be fully safe, this due vigilance will go a LONG WAY to protect you in the long run. I don’t want you to become a nervous nellie over this, it’s a one in a thousand occurence!!

Another thing to watch out for, is recognisable clothing brands, logos, and any other trademark / IP that belongs to a third party.

What Resources CAN My Artists Use??

One of the main things you can do to ensure your artist is walking the righteous path – is gently enquire where they sourced their stock images (particularly relevant for more recognisable figurative images.)

Here’s a rundown of some of the reputable stock vendors where your artist may source their images:

Major Microstock Websites

Major Microstock websites such as Adobe Stock, Depositphotos, Shutterstock etc. have checks and balances in place, to ensure the legality of the uploaded content is above board.

Submitted images are examined by professional moderators who have to approve what’s being uploaded. Whilst you are largely safe with resources from the major microstock sites, there’s still the issue of straying into content that is SIMILAR to existing properties.

Take this catwoman picture for instance – whilst it’s legally safe to be included on their stock photography library, it’s possible you could run into issues using it on your book cover as it’s TOO similar to the Catwoman IP owned by DC / Warner Brothers:

Avoid any Pop Culture IP, and you’re onto a winner.

Stock Photography Agencies

Stock Photography agencies such as Getty Images, Alamy, and the smaller platforms such as Trevillion and Arcangel are all reputable vendors – who operate similar vetting of their content as the Microstock Websites.

These agencies represent the premium end of the cover-art scale, and are rarely used by artists in the Indie Publishing sphere (the majority of cover artists using the major Microstock, and Boutique stock sites…)

There are often different licensing options with these sites, with a focus on ‘Rights Managed’ and ‘Exclusive’ licenses – but that’s an article for another day!!

Boutique Stock Photography Sites

Boutique Stock Photography sites are platforms operated by small companies, or individuals (usually niche focused on book cover art) – NeoStock and Period Images being two examples.

Whilst these plucky contenders don’t have the legal heft of the titans, their content is crafted with care – and the owners are (usually) hyper-aware of what / what isn’t permitted when it comes to book cover stock photography.

They’re heavily invested in the publishing world, and live / breathe cover art 24/7!!

Alas, there can still be issues in this arena. With many fly-by-night operations popping up, due vigilance is still worthwhile. Are there any recognisable brands in the image? Is the image just a cosplay of an existing property?

Medieval Assassin starring Liepa (by NeoStock)… Looks safe to me!!

Social Art Stock Providers

Major social art platforms such as DeviantArt have individual stock providers who offer stock photography via their profiles – including stock artists such as Faestock, Elandria, and PhelanDavion.

These artist put out A LOT of free content into the public domain… These resources are free to use for personal or practice projects – HOWEVER, for commercial / professional useage, they all have their own licensing fees and terms that need to be adhered to!!

Each provider is different, so you’ll need to communicate with them directly to ensure you have the correct license for your project.

Faestock is a Social Art stock provider who also has a presence on the Microstock platforms – so that can make the transaction / licensing MUCH more straightforward for you!!

Danger Zones

Here’s a small checklist of sites / platforms that have the potential for causing you issues:

Google Images

First and foremost – ANYTHING sourced from Google Images is out of the question. If you have a designer / artist say “I grabbed it from Google Images“, that’s the biggest red flag possible – and you need to stop working with them. Immediately.

Google Images is NOT a stock photography platform. Rolling like that will land you in trouble… BIIIGGG trouble!!

Free Stock Websites

Things can get a little hairy when using Free Stock Photography websites, such as Pixabay (a regular offender), or Pexels etc.

These platforms can be particularly problematic when it comes to licensed IP, as the site uploads don’t undergo the same vetting process as the Microstock platforms.

Issues are usually encountered with ‘figurative’ (photos of people) stocks, as opposed to smaller elements such as backgrounds, or textures. Photos of people is usually where the trouble usually lies…

If your designer / artist is getting their figurative images from (reputable) Microstock / Agencies / Boutiques, you’ll be fine. Don’t skimp when it comes to figurative stocks!!

Social Art Websites

If the designer / artist grabs stock resources from DeviantArt, and doesn’t comply with the stock provider’s licensing terms, then that can come back and bite you.

Ensure the stock is properly licensed, by communicating with the vendor direct. Their terms are usually very reasonable!!

99Designs / Fiverr

Avoid these platforms. There’s too many charlatans operating here, who really don’t care about the implications of IP / copyright law – OR the implications it has on you, the author.

Whilst I know MANY great artists who got their start on these platforms – as a professional I’d highly advise you avoid 99Designs / Fiverr (or any other micro-service / crowdtalent platform) like the plague.

Side-step that arena, and just commission someone direct via their website, or LinkedIn / Facebook. Save yourself the heartache, and paying some third party a cut for nothing.

Closing Notes

My goal here isn’t to terrify you into submission, with nightmares of litigation and woe… this is merely a heads-up on how you can work with your cover artist, to ensure all of your stock resources are above board!!

By adhering to the above, you can most definitely score world-class cover art that is both affordable AND legal.

All the best with your literary adventures!!



About the Author:

Dean Samed is a professional cover artist, and Photoshop instructor.

He now dedicates his fulltime attention to producing ‘the best goddamn stock photography on the planet!!


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