US Stock image site makes both sides of an art theft case in Japan into victims

The story of how a Japanese artist’s illustration mysteriously found its way into a well-known fiber internet service’s advertisement has left not only the artist baffled but the internet provider as well. It turns out an overseas stock image hosting site had something to do with it.

NURO Hikari is a fiber-optics internet service provided by SONY Group Corporation. On August 28, as part of a promotional campaign, NURO Hikari’s official X/Twitter account shared a post announcing its 10 Gbps streaming service plan. The post features an anime-styled illustration of a girl with vibrant purple hair smiling toward bright lighting. The promotional post remained on the internet service’s official page without issue, until the original artist behind the advertisement’s illustration came across the post on September 4 and noticed that it had been used without them knowing.

Post translation: “Wait… NURO Hikari, is that my art you’re using in your promotion? Did you really go through the trouble of cutting out the background, flipping it horizontally, and even changing the colors?”

Apparently, the art in NURO Hikari’s promotional campaign was an illustration that the artist made eight years prior and was used without their permission. In a now-deleted post, the artist, minamo, posted “Wait… NURO Hikari, is that my art you’re using in your promotion?” In addition, it appears that someone took some artistic liberties with minamo’s art, mirroring the image, removing its background, and changing its color palette.

Minamo’s post, which had gained over 20,000 reposts, received an apologetic reply from NURO Hikari. According to BuzzFeed Japan, approximately two hours after the illustrator’s complaint, they officially apologized on their account, stating, “We deeply apologize for this incident. We are currently investigating the circumstances of the ad’s publication and are making arrangements for its immediate suspension.” 

When minamo updated their followers on the matter, the artist announced that they believed that NURO Hikari may have not been entirely at fault and that the confusion may have been the result of a false attribution of the artist’s work by a third party. 

Post translation: “I’ve received various notifications, and I can’t respond individually at the moment, but please wait before attempting to attack NURO Hikari’s official account… I don’t think they are completely at fault, and I believe this is an issue on the advertising agency’s side… Personally, I’m a bit frustrated because I make a living with my art. I just wanted an official commission request.”

Grateful for NURO Hikari’s quick response on the matter, minamo decided to delete several posts regarding the issue. However, J Cast reports, ” According to the illustrator, the advertising agency purchased the image from Shutterstock as royalty-free content that could be used multiple times and it was then used in NURO Hikari’s advertisement. Upon learning of the complainant’s allegations, they stopped distributing the advertisement on the evening of September 4 and received an apology for causing an inconvenience. It is reported that this image has since been removed from Shutterstock.”

It appears that NURO Hikari bought the rights to use minamo’s illustration from a royalty-free image site called Big Stock Photos, whose parent company is Shutterstock. The site claims to host “over 125 million royalty-free photographs and illustrations,” however, it seems that not all images were copyright-free. The internet service, believing that they officially bought the rights to use the image, used it as part of their campaign.

Fortunately for minamo and NURO Hikari, both sides were able to reach an agreement on the illustration’s use, with NURO Hikari offering to purchase the rights to use the image again, this time directly from the artist. In a series of posts concluding the matter, minamo posted one of NURO Hikari’s responses, in which they said “Our company is captivated by your work. We would like to make a payment and plan to continue using your creation for our advertising in the future. Above are the details and proposed settlement.” Currently, the promotional post remains on NURO Hikari’s official page.

Many companies rely on stock resource services to ensure they have the right to use images without infringing on anyone’s copyrights. However, if royalty-free sites allow falsely copyrighted images to be uploaded on their site, it becomes a concern. Shutterstock and its subsidiary stock image sites are used globally, so it’s a bit alarming that anyone could claim the rights to images that aren’t theirs. Moving forward, it would be wise for sites that claim their images are free of copyright to ensure that this is indeed the case.

Remi Morisawa
Remi Morisawa
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