We know you have a lot of questions following last week's philosophical introduction to the matter of changing IP standards here at iStock. Content Development Director JJRD brings us a more in-depth explanation of what's coming, as well as 4 specific areas where standards have evolved, and how.

Signing any creation, including taking a photograph, shooting a video or drawing an illustration, is a social statement. It involves much more than technical issues such as clicking on the shutter at the right moment or processing an image correctly: it’s about sharing a vision. When presenting a file to the world, an individual claims property on a work that she or he declares as her or his own... both legally and artistically.

Within the context of royalty-free, an artist needs to acknowledge that she or he is the principal copyright holder of the content submitted for licensing and that this content is free of all other copyright and or trademark. At iStockphoto, we always tried to weed out problematic subject matter out of our collection: subject matter that could constitute a legal and or ethical issue to another party.

We’ve been doing this everyday since we introduced the concept of ‘microstock’ to the world, and will continue to do so. Most issues are easy to explain (a logo is a logo is a logo) — but some are more difficult to communicate.

The inspection process here is very intricate, and we are very proud of it. Do we have guidelines for beauty? We don’t — who does? Based on experience, common sense and a passion to offer great files to designers (as well as educating contributors to the very best of our abilities), we now inspect over 200 thousand files every month. We simply call the shots, one at a time. And, in a vast majority of cases our inspectors are taking the correct and proper decisions.

Mastering the Law is an artform, just like any other. Each and every borderline photograph, illustration, Flash file or video, each and every signed creation must be addressed as a single entity, and a decision must be taken within the context of that particular picture and within the context of the collection in which it lies.

Let's start with something easy to master. Picture a building with a huge logo on it. Shot a mile away with a fisheye lens? That would most probably be acceptable, as the logo would barely touch but a few pixels on the sensor. The very same building, shot from across the street with a 200mm lens aimed straight at the logo? Now that would of course be unacceptable. Extreme examples, granted. Now picture everything in between. That is where one has to draw the line: somewhere. When the logo becomes recognizable and can cause an issue: when the overall context becomes a potential risk (as in royalty-free imagery), one visible logo is one visible logo too many.

Now let's imagine a car. It's on a road and shot from an helicopter. The car looks very generic and is tiny within the composition. It only serves the purpose of adding to the composition a very vague and distant element of movement within a landscape: of course, it could be perfectly acceptable. Now, a luxury car, shot from the road, dead center, main subject in the composition, perfectly in focus, with everything else in the composition out of focus? It could very well be a different story. And once again... imagine all possible variations in between.

The same logic can be used for most everything… and the question is ''could this eventually cause a problem for the artist, the designer and or the collection?'' There are four particular areas where we have immediate concerns and have provided a set of guidelines to help you ask that same question when you look in the viewfinder or pick up the pencil.


NASA archives contain an extensive collection of renders and photos (including satellite images) that are in the public domain and free to use as long as NASA is credited. We have come up with our own set of restrictions on how these images may be used to resell by a third party (that's you) in order to foster creativity and protect our contributors and clients.

Uploads which mainly feature unmodified NASA images, or even slightly altered versions without a strong concept, will not be accepted. Using a NASA image (properly credited in the image description) as the basis for a strong new original composition will be allowed.

This public domain image is completely unaltered.

This image uses a NASA file as the basis for a strong original concept.


Certain kinds of exotic or luxury cars present us with a problem. Even with visible logos removed, a Lamborghini is still very obviously a Lamborghini. The companies who produce luxury automobiles tend to be protective of their designs to the extreme, and we have to respect that.

In other cases, where an individual automobile is recognizable because of certain custom features, such as the paint job on a hot rod, they can be uploaded if there is a property release included.

In more general terms, we need to look at the kinds of automobile images we accept. Again, context is the key. If an automobile is featured as a prop within a concept in which, as an example, several young people are enjoying a moment together, and that the automobile is not clearly and fully depicted, it might very well be acceptable. If an automobile is included in an image as part of a larger composition (provided they don't fall into the "luxurious or exotic" category) it may also be acceptable. However, for some time we have been faced with growing concerns regarding isolated product-shot type images of cars. Obviously we want our contributors to be able to take pictures of automobiles. But certain approaches do cause us, both as a community of artists and as a company, a degree of risk – and as we've grown, that risk has grown substantially as well.

We can no longer accept most images of cars where the vehicle is depicted as a product or represents more than 20% of the image as the main focus of the photograph.

Context will be the key… and the Inspectors will evaluate each image on a case by case basis.

This product-style shot, even without recognizable logos, is just too much identifiable car.

This image features an anonymous automobile as a compositional feature.

Cruise Ships

Cruise ships are unique, take years to build at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, and most are easily recognizable. They all have their own exterior design features, color schemes and unique details – specially designed decks, smoke-stacks, pool shapes, etc. The owners of these ships are very protective of their trade dress. When they are recognizable in an image, even in part, there is the risk of legal action. The case of cruise ships is more sensitive than most and in order to protect you we cannot accept images of them into our collection, with the exception of compositions in which the cruise ship plays a minor role.

Again, context will be the key… and the Inspectors will evaluate each image on a case by case basis.

This cruise ship is a recognizable design and we can not license its image for resale.

The ship in this image is distant enough to be considered unrecognizable, and is only one part of a large composition.

Contextual Model Releases

Our standard rule of thumb when deciding when a model release needs to be applied has always been "Would you recognize yourself if that was you in the image?" This has been applied fairly literally in the past, meaning recognizable faces, and occasionally other identifying marks like tattoos. However, as we grow we find that being recognized often has as much to do with the setting and context as the subject's facial features.

Before you upload a file involving people without model release(s), you have to ask yourself two questions:
From a legal standpoint: Is there anything in this image that could make someone recognizable and if so is that person an important enough part of the composition to potentially cause an issue?
From an ethical standpoint: Is the context in which that person is depicted problematic and if so is the issue major enough for us to decide not to include the image as part of our collection?

There are tons of ways to respectfully photograph people on the street, in a crowd, etc. Again, we do not feel that these new standards will be restrictive, quite the contrary. In some cases, contributors will simply have to find new and more creative ways to present a scene or a subject matter, such as a shallower depth of field and a stronger and more suggesting composition... ultimately resulting in more challenging, intelligent and useful stock imagery.

Although we can't see his face, it's reasonable to believe this man could recognize himself in this image.

This crowd is anonymous and unidentifiable.

In some of these cases, especially that of isolated car shots, we realize that we are introducing a significant change to our collection and our contributors. It's important that everyone understands: these decisions have not been taken lightly and have been developing behind the scenes for some time. As we continue to grow, our primary concern is that iStockphoto provides a safe environment for all of our contributors and clients. We aren't the designer's little secret anymore — what we do and how we do it attracts attention and we need to be accountable for all of our decisions. We look forward to working with you and answering all the questions we're sure you have.

Image Credits
Thank you to Shaunl, THEPALMER, and JJRD for providing our no longer acceptable car, cruise-ship and un-model released image.
Earth about to explode by fpm
speeding car by Mlenny
Cruise Ship On The Horizon by dmbaker
City workers by urbancow

'The Blue Marble' courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center — Image by Reto Stöckli (land surface, shallow water, clouds). Enhancements by Robert Simmon (ocean color, compositing, 3D globes, animation). Data and technical support: MODIS Land Group; MODIS Science Data Support Team; MODIS Atmosphere Group; MODIS Ocean Group Additional data: USGS EROS Data Center (topography); USGS Terrestrial Remote Sensing Flagstaff Field Center (Antarctica); Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (city lights).