Fat Stacks quote from Breaking Bad by Jesse Pinkman

Can new site owners keep Shutterstock images on sites they purchase (without having to pay for new image licenses)?

How’s this for a kick to the teeth.

You find the perfect site that’s listed for sale.

It’s in your budget.

You bid, win and buy.

Given the value of content sites these days, chances are you paid some big bucks.

But you know you gotta spend money to make it, right?

You’ve got a big dream to turn it into something special.

You manage to get the domain in your hands and the site safely ensconced in your hosting account.

You did it.  You bought a website.  You’re in business.

You start writing some killer content. Fix up old content.  Maybe tweak the design.  It’s gonna be a beaut and a BIG earner to boot.

You wake up one day, excited to keep building, only to receive an email with subject line “COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT CLAIM NOTIFICATION”.

Your stomach churns. Heart rate escalates. You open the email.

Amidst a pile of legalese, you learn a copyright troll is alleging your site is using images illegally.  Then you read the dreaded claim for $50,000 in retroactive fees, damages, etc.


You don’t have a lawyer on retainer.  You’re just a new site owner wanting to get into the blogging business.

You check out the URLs and images that are apparently infringing copyright.

Sure enough, the images are there.  You had no idea because you just bought the site.

HERE’S THE KICKER:  It never occurred to you to ask the seller about whether EVERY image was used legally.  You had no intention to infringe copyright. You just didn’t know it was an issue to bring up.

Failure to make that one inquiry can now cost you tens of thousands of dollars rendering your investment a nightmare.

What do you do?

I hate to say this, but unless you have licenses/permissions for the images, you need to contact an attorney (which is more money).

If you do have licenses/permissions, that’s great.  Send them to the troll. If legit, they’ll back off.  I’ve done this several times and I never heard from them again.

What if it turns out the images on your site were properly licensed from Shutterstock?  Do you have to buy your own license for those images on the site you buy?

DISCLAIMER:  the following information about Shutterstock is based on information I received from my Shutterstock rep.  These policies may change at any time so please make your own inquiries.  I’m merely reporting what I was told.

Short answer: No, you don’t have to buy a license for those images existing on a site you buy.  You can keep the images on your site as-is.

However, you (site buyer) do not get a license to those images.  You merely have the option to keep the images on the site as they were when you purchased the site.

Note, keeping the images on the site is based on the assumption the seller properly licensed the images from Shutterstock.

For sellers, this is also important because it makes it easier to sell sites.  If buyers had to pay for a license for every image, that would be a huge financial barrier to site buyers.

I use Shutterstock for almost every image.  Other images I use I ask for permission (and get those permissions in writing, which I file away).  These practices have to date saved me over $50,000 in infringement claims.

If you license images from Shutterstock, put them on a site, sell that site, can you use those images on other sites or elsewhere?

Yes, you can.  Since you are the entity that licensed those images, you can use the images again on other sites and platforms.

However, if you sign a non-compete clause or any other non-competition agreement with the site buyer, you should specify that you can use the images you’ve licensed elsewhere.  Otherwise, it’s arguable that using the images on the site you sold on other sites/platforms could be in breach of any non-compete.

Who is on the hook for infringement after the sale – the site buyer or the seller (license holder)?

This entire post stems from a good discussion on the Fat Stacks forum.  As the Q&A evolved, one astute member asked “If a site buyer breaches the Shutterstock terms of service, is the licensee (site seller) or the site buyer liable for any infringement damages?”

My Shutterstock rep responded that the site buyer would be liable.

What about other stock photo sites?  Does the above apply?

I don’t know. I only use Shutterstock these days.

I suggest you ask them so you’re crystal clear on the legalities surrounding your use of images.

Who knew buying a site could be so complicated?

Yeah, tell me about.  The law is a minefield.

Before you buy a site, spend some time researching questions you should ask and due diligence you should perform.  Ideally, you’d consult a lawyer who is familiar with buying and selling web properties.  This time and money spent could save you a small fortune down the road.

Will website brokers help with the legal aspects of buying/selling a website?

I’ve only purchased one website and have never sold a site so I’m not knowledgeable with what legal information/advice website brokers provide.

My hunch is they don’t provide any legal advice because it’s a conflict of interest given they represent site sellers.  They are not in the business of providing legal advice.  They merely bring buyers and sellers together.  It’s best to talk to your own lawyer.

IMPORTANT:  Any legal issue you have with your business, whether looking to buy a business, operate a business or selling a business, please, please, please consult an attorney.  And yes, a website, no matter how big or small is a business.

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