Want a surefire way to make your legal team love you? Learn how to properly manage stock photos and other licensed assets with your digital asset management (DAM) system.
There’s a reason why there are over 350 billion stock images on the market, and why it’s projected to be a $4 billion industry by 2023. Stock photos are great. With the click of a button, you have a professional, affordable content solution to power your creative and marketing initiatives.
But as you accumulate more and more stock assets, you quickly realize that these turnkey beauties have a few nuances that make them tough to manage. Unless you want legal trouble, you need to abide by the stock vendor’s licensing terms. This involves controlling who uses your photos, how, when, and where. And if you aren’t leveraging your DAM system to its fullest potential, managing this process is cumbersome and can create all sorts of inefficiencies and workflow bottlenecks. But lucky for you, DAM systems have loads of capabilities and features to help — you just need to know how to use them. Here are a few pro tips to get you started!
Understand your copyright licenses
If you’re a DAM admin, you are responsible for your organization’s digital rights management (DRM), which essentially means you’re steering the ship when it comes to how you use your DAM system to control the use of copyrighted digital assets. Technology is important in ensuring the process goes smoothly, but you also need to have a firm handle on the different types of stock-licensing agreements. Without this knowledge, you won’t be able to effectively organize, communicate, and control how DAM users leverage sensitive stock assets. There are typically two major licenses you need to know about:
- Royalty-free licenses allow anyone within your organization or doing work on your behalf (e.g., freelancers and agencies) to use licensed images for an unlimited period of time on as many projects as desired. These images are not exclusive, so don’t be surprised if you see other companies using the same photos.
- Rights-managed licenses can also only be used by or on behalf of the company that purchases the license. They come with an expiration date, and you can purchase them on an exclusive or non-exclusive basis. If you want to use the photo on multiple projects, such as a marketing brochure and your website redesign, you’ll need to buy a separate license for each use case.
Whether you go with a royalty-free or rights-managed license depends on your unique needs. If you’re using the image for your blog, royalty-free photos will likely do the trick. But if you’re leveraging stock photos as a key branding element, you’ll want rights-managed licenses, so other companies don’t purchase and use an image your brand depends on.
Note: Not all stock licenses allow assets to be shared with other users via DAM systems. Refer to the stock agency’s licensing agreement for details.
Manage user permissions
Since stock photos can only be used by (or on behalf of) the organization that purchased them, you’ll want to use your DAM system to control user access. By setting permission levels on the backend, you can easily and consistently control who has what level of access to which assets and how they can interact with them. For example, let’s say you want to manually approve if and when a user can access an image. You can grant users view-only access so they can see what stock is available, and then require them to request permission each time they want to download a sensitive photo. Or, if you have rights-managed photos with strict expiration dates, you can block access for certain user groups, like your social media team, that may download and post on channels where images typically live forever or are prone to viral sharing. Alternatively, you could require these teams to use embed codes, so your system automatically removes shared images once they expire.
Use and require metadata
Without metadata, system users will struggle to find the assets they’re looking for. Because of this, the information or data that you use to describe the stock images in your DAM system is of the utmost importance. At a minimum, include these metadata fields:
- Filename: While the filename of your stock image may seem like a meaningless string of numbers, don’t overwrite it. This unique number makes it easy for you to find licensing rights or missing metadata for rogue stock images that pop up unexpectedly in places like shared drives and InDesign documents.
- Keywords: Add descriptive words and phrases that do more than identify the subject of your stock photos. Take the time to include descriptors that explain which part of your business the stock photo is relevant to, as well as those that capture image themes, messages, and emotions.
- Description: When keywords aren’t enough to describe the asset, use the description field to add more detail. This field is particularly helpful if controlled vocabulary lists (CVLs) prevent you from adding needed information, or you want to avoid creating one-off metadata fields.
- License details: Always specify if a stock image license is royalty free or rights managed. If there are additional details, such as exclusivity or channel-usage restrictions, consider creating a new metadata field to capture recurring details.
- Expiration date: Populate expiration dates dictated by your organization and your rights-managed licenses. This way, the system automatically removes image previews shared via embed codes and makes outdated images unavailable to users.
- Owner: Add the photographer’s name or the name of the stock-photo vendor, so there is no confusion over who owns the photo. Including this information also ensures that you can trace the image to its owner should you have questions about it or need to renew your license.
To further safeguard against information gaps that happen over time or with multiple people uploading images to your system, make the most important metadata fields required. You can also ask your DAM vendor about ways to save time and automate metadata entry using capabilities like automatic mapping of embedded metadata (i.e., IPTC, EXIF or XMP), auto-tagging image recognition, and upload profiles.
Control for versions
Just like your owned digital assets, your licensed assets may undergo various iterations or versions over time. For example, let’s say you alternate between seasonal stock photos for the header on your website’s homepage, or you regularly test and rotate different stock images based on what performs the best. DAM platforms have built-in version control, a functionality that captures the history of an asset in its metadata. Just upload the latest version to an existing asset record, and anyone with access to the asset will see the most up-to-date, brand-approved file the next time they view that asset — no duplicates, no confusion between versions.
Version control also has farther reaching advantages. If you use share links to distribute assets to teams and partners or leverage embed codes to display an asset in your content management system (CMS), on your website, or across other online sources, it will automatically update based on the latest version or master file in the DAM system. Instead of updating assets everywhere they were shared or published, teams can “create once, publish everywhere” (COPE) to save time and better manage the integrity and consistency of the brand across touchpoints.
Safeguard with watermarks and EULAs
Even with system permissions, metadata, and proper communication in place, it’s a good idea for you to incorporate extra safeguards into your system. Watermarks and end-user license agreements (EULAs) are a great place to start. Each gives you an extra layer of protection and helps hold users accountable for their actions. Here’s how they work:
- Watermarks apply a custom, faint imprint to your image previews, without impacting the actual asset available for download. Watermarking is great for stock images, as it prevents sneaky or uninformed system users from taking screen captures as a way around permission settings.
- EULAs are digital contracts that require users to confirm that they understand and agree to usage terms before they can use an asset or asset group. Typically admins apply EULAs at the asset-download level, but you can trigger them after the first user login and on the order page.
You can never be too careful when it comes to safeguarding your organization against the expensive and damaging effects of copyright and IP violations. However, you know your organization best. Only implement safeguards that will work for you. If your EULA terms change from month to month, you may struggle to keep these up-to-date and relevant for users. If that’s the case, spend your time on harder-hitting optimizations like improving permission levels and metadata.
A major benefit of using a DAM system is that your users have one convenient spot to access an asset, as well as any information related to it. If you didn’t use a DAM system and instead relied on alternative solutions like a file-sharing tool or even your CMS, you wouldn’t have this luxury. You’d need to juggle complex folder hierarchies or even external documents to stay organized. And with all the sensitivities and licensing nuances with stock photos, it’s best if you can simply attach pertinent information to the asset itself. This way, users are empowered to answer their own questions, and they have immediate access to the information they need to remain compliant.
Depending on the DAM system, you should be able to attach most (if not all) file types to an asset. Attach everything from spec sheets to directions, copyright licenses, EULAs, attribution requirements, and more! Think about the information your different user groups may need. If you work with designers, give them information about approved use cases. After all, they may need to know if they can use a stock image in both a web and print design, or if they can create derivative work from or based on a photograph. Most of all, know your user base. This will help you define what information is beneficial as an attachment for your users.
Even with just a handful of stock photos in your content library, manually tracking when rights-managed licenses expire can be a painful task. Instead, set up notifications, so you’re automatically notified via email or an in-system alert when an expiration date is approaching. Notifications ensure you have enough lead time to extend or renew a license that’s still in use. You may even want to set multiple notifications leading up to the expiration date, so you have adequate time and can check usage stats and consult with users at various points before making a decision. For some, notifications 60 days, 30 days, and 10 days from expiration is perfect. For others, it’s too much. You’ll need to determine the right balance.
We discussed how notifications can help you manage expiration dates and give you time to determine what’s working and not working with your stock photos. When doing this, always talk with your users. The qualitative insights you can gather from a conversation are invaluable. Although “the numbers don’t lie,” you can misinterpret them. For example, maybe teams are using a particular asset because it’s the best option, but they have ideas for a better alternative. Talking with your users helps you understand your data on a deeper level, and gives you peace of mind that you’re acting on the right conclusions.
In addition to gathering qualitative data, you need to monitor the data tracked in your DAM system and use it to test your hypotheses about content performance and use. These stats tell you who’s downloading assets, when, why, and how often. As a result, you can answer your most pressing content questions and make informed decisions to improve your return on investment (ROI). This way, you have a better idea of if you need to renew, extend, or renegotiate licenses. And, you’ll know if you should redirect your budget to a less-expensive stock vendor or even create a similar asset in-house. On top of this, you can also use this knowledge to improve system controls and permissions. For example, if you discover via intended-use stats that people are using a particularly expensive stock asset on a low-return channel, you can reevaluate which teams have access.
Establish a workflow and governance
As you would with any digital assets that are managed in your DAM platform, you need to establish rules and best practices around stock photo workflows and use. Before updating your DAM governance document (you have one of those, right?), think through the entire workflow for stock photos, from pre-purchase to expiration. Which vendor sites are approved for stock purchases? Who within your organization is permitted to make these purchases? Ask yourself questions like these, all the way to the end of the process where you need to weigh considerations like who has access to certain photos in the DAM system, when and how they can use them, and at what point you retire or renew stock licenses. Then update your governance documentation and communicate and train teams to ensure everyone understands your workflow and rules of operation.
The consequences are real
In an age where everyone from amateur content creators to professional photographers and stock vendors have the right to ownership and the protection of their intellectual property (IP), you need to take measures to safeguard not only the assets you own but the assets you license. To find out how our digital asset management solution, the Widen Collective®, can help you better manage your owned and licensed digital assets, today!
Note: This article was originally published in June 2015 and September 2018 and has been updated to include new content.