How using 99designs' service could land clients in legal trouble

Digital Arts | 15 August 13

Clients could end up in legal trouble if distribute stock images or fonts to designers through services such as Swiftly without proper licensing. Image: iStock 

Font and stock image licensing restrictions mean clients often can't just send projects to designers using the site.

Using the newly-launched service could leave clients in legal hot water. Launched this week by the ever-controversial 99designs, the service lets clients send projects to designers for minor tweaks – for example, changing the job title on a business card or basic photo retouching – for a meagre $15 (around £9.65).

As with its parent, the service has caused some consternation with creatives who feel it's devaluing design work. However, a more practical concern from a client's point-of-view is that they may not be able to use the service legally for the set price if the projects they want tweaked includes commercially licensed stock imagery or fonts – unless the designer they use also owns the image or font.

Representatives from font foundry Monotype – owner of font sales sites and MyFonts – and stock media company Getty Images – which owns iStock – both advise caution about using the service if projects include commercially licensed stock imagery or fonts

"The transfer of digital assets is possibly a potential issue for the new venture," says Jason Harcombe, senior account manager and licensing consultant at Monotype. "Whether that is an image or a font, the simple sending of artwork to a third party could pose a threat to both the creator of the works and [designers contracted by] themselves."

Double liability

Jason says that if a client sends a project with an unlicensed font to a designer through and the designer works on that project, both are liable: the client for distributing the font and the designer for using the font without a licence.

"I don't know how means to overcome this," he continues. "Certainly I'd advise the senders of any artwork to ensure [designers contracted by Swiftly have] a license for the assets they send prior to doing so, as it will be Swiftly's customers who leave themselves open to infringement by shipping fonts to a party without a licence."

Lisa Willmer, senior director, corporate counsel at Getty Images agrees – noting that, while services such as Swiftly might appear to offer a new way of contracting simple design work, the licensing of images is no different than the traditional way of contracting a designer.

For example, the licence for most fonts and stock images mentions a set number of computers you're allowed to have copies of the files on. If this is a single computer – and it often is – you can't give a copy to any third-party design without them or you purchasing additional licences.

"The standard iStock licence is a single-seat licence," she says, "meaning that the raw file should only be present on one computer at a time. So if a customer sends the raw file to the designer – whether that is [through] Swiftly or some other designer – they can’t have the raw file present anywhere else.”

The site makes no specific mention of font or image licensing, beyond a general mention that for the transaction to take place a customer must ensure that "the User Content does not violate any third party intellectual property or other rights" in the site's terms-and-conditions.


JesseK said: Of course there is rampant design thievery / copyright infringement that's how they pump out the "original" designs so quickly. Nothing good is this cheap. Now if your company owns a stolen design, In the end will the design be worth the lawsuit ? Not to mention the damage it does your business reputation... I hope it was worth it.

Guest said: Recently I was alerted by a client of 99designs that a designer had submitted a design to their project which used one of my illustrations as part of the design. He came unstuck when he was asked which format he had the high resolution files in. Long story, but basically I was very lucky that the client decided to check the image source and contacted me to tell me what had happened. 99designs did take the issue seriously, but the problem is that, had the design not required a high resolution file, and had the client not bothered to check the image source independently, I might never have known.The designer was quite happy to attempt to pass the drawing off as their work and only admitted they hadn't drawn it themselves when confronted by the client. He hadn't copied, traced or mimicked my work, incidently, but copied and pasted an image directly from my website into his design.With so many people being completely unaware of the complexities of image licensing and copyright, sites like these make it too easy for people to plagiarize or steal work. However quick 99 Designs are to respond to these issues (and they did get in touch quickly, admittedly) they didn't have the slightest idea that someone was doing this and nor would I have found out myself as this particular contest was 'hidden'.I realise this is off topic a little, but I thought it worth mentioning as a direct example of how the website structure makes image licensing very hard to control well.