Using Copyrighted Images: Don’t Risk It!

Using copyrighted images that you don’t have permission for can cause you serious trouble. What seems like and easy way to avoid paying for images can end up costing you a lot more.
Using Copyrighted Images
Every image is copyrighted by default. The copyright is owned by the person who produced that image. They can sell the rights to that image in many different ways or they could license it for use for free. Just because a website doesn’t have a copyright statement doesn’t mean that you can use their images for free.

I found this image on a website…

Clients often come to us with images that they want to put on their website that they have found on other peoples websites. Sometimes they find them by using Google’s Image Search.

These images all belong to someone else and if we were to use them we would be stealing them and passing them off as our own.
Don't Hotlink Images


It is possible to show an image from another website without actually having it on your web server. This is called hotlinking. Your web page displays the image directly from they other website’s server. This isn’t an infringement of copyright but it is still a very bad idea.

Using images like this uses bandwidth from the other person’s website. It may actually be costing them money to show images on your website. This is known as bandwidth theft and is considered a very rude thing to do on the Internet.

The other problem with this is that you are always at the mercy of the website that is hosting the image. If they remove the image or block your site the image will disappear from your website without notice. Sometimes website owners like to get their own back when you hotlink to them. Some do this by changing the image to a notice that says something like ‘Don’t Hotlink!’ but others have been known to be more extreme and swap them for offensive images and pornography. Do you want that on your website?

Penalties for Copyright theft

If you are using someone’s images without permission they can send a takedown letter to your ISP. Internet Service Providers like to avoid the legal complications of copyright and often comply immediately with takedown notices without contacting you. The first time you realise there is a problem is when people start complaining that they can’t get to your site anymore. The ISP has probably pulled your entire site due to breaching the terms and conditions of their hosting agreement.

Beyond this you could be sued for your use of copyrighted images depending on whether doing so made you money or caused the copyright owner to lose money. However the potential loss of your site (even if for a short time) should be enough to make you avoid stealing images.

Alternatives to using copyrighted images

There are a number of sites on the web that will let you use their images for free. Some of them will do so on the understanding that you link back to them but they don’t often have very many or very good images in their collections.

Another option is images that have been licensed as Creative Commons (CC) by their creators. These can be found on both Flickr and Wikimedia Commons. There are different types of Creative Commons license that allow you to do different things with them. Make sure you check the details of the license before you use an image.

Royalty Free Images

Royalty Free Images are not free. You have to pay an initial fee to use the image but you don’t have to pay a royalty every time the image is used. The good thing about royalty free images is that you don’t have to include an attribution to the image creator on the web page.

Lately we have been getting Stock Photos from 123rf.com who have a large catalogue of images that are available in different sizes and very reasonable prices. This is a much quicker option than having to trawl through free images sites and Creative Commons sites for the image you want.

Never, ever, ever

So there you have it. There is never a reason to use copyrighted images. It is illegal, can cause you loads of problems and there are much better alternatives available.

Thanks to MJCPK

How using Google Images can cost you $8,000

This story originally ran on PR Daily in July 2013.

What’s lamer than a crappy photo of Nebraska? Having to pay $8,000 in copyright infringement penalties for it.

This is a lesson we recently learned the hard way, and if you have (or contribute to) a blog, you might want to read our story so that you never, ever make the same mistake we did.

We write thousands of blogs every year for our clients and agency partners. Our editorial standards are obnoxiously high, and we do our best to write the best Web content our clients (and their competitors) have ever seen. Although we try to catch everything, occasionally a mistake sneaks by us. Recently we made a very costly mistake, and I think it’s one that every blogger and business owner should be aware of.

It all started when one of our writers posted a blog to a client’s site—it was about finding great deals in Omaha, Neb., complete with an altogether underwhelming photo of the city, which may or may not have been taken by a drunken college student with a camera phone in 2005. You wouldn’t see this photo and immediately go book a vacation there, is what I’m saying.

Anyway, it wasn’t an especially popular post, and we could prove via Google Analytics that fewer than 100 people read it.

More than three months after the blog had been posted, the client got an email from an attorney. This particular lawyer deals with one thing and one thing only: image copyright infringement. For the sake of the story, let’s say his name is Curtis M. Leech, Esq.

The long-forgotten blog that was posted months ago had come back to haunt us. Mr. Leech sent the client a formal complaint letter, saying that they were being sued for $8,000 for using his client’s copyrighted photo on their website.

We were under the mistaken impression that before anyone could be sued, the offender had to ignore a request to take down the copyrighted image. Because the lawsuit came without any kind of warning, and because this was the first time we’d ever been accused of such a thing, we were hoping that replacing the image and sincerely apologizing to Mr. Leech and his client would remedy the situation. We were wrong.

The law

Current Fair Use image copyright laws say that you’re financially liable for posting copyrighted images, even if:

• You did it by accident
• You immediately take down the picture after receiving a DMCA takedown notice
• The picture is resized
• If the picture is licensed to your Web developer (Getty Images requires that you get your own license, thank you very much)
• You link back to the photo source and cite the photographer’s name
• Your site isn’t commercial and you make no money from your blogs
• You have a disclaimer on the site
• The pic is embedded instead of saved on your server
• You found it on the Internet

All of our clients sign contracts stating that they’re solely responsible for all of the content we produce, but we were ethically opposed to making somebody else pay for a mistake that happened on our watch. We called our lawyer, and the negotiations with Mr. Leech began.


Fortunately, we were able to hire a lawyer who negotiated a settlement. We ended up paying $3,000 instead of the original $8,000 in copyright infringement penalties that Mr. Leech was originally seeking. Leech drove a hard bargain, but he did offer a three-month installment plan if we needed the extra time (so know that could be an option, if you ever find yourself dealing with your own Leech).

Now, $3,000 is a lot less than $8,000, but still far from appropriate restitution for our offense. It was the equivalent of several months’ rent at the office, or holiday bonuses for our staff, or a variety of other things we could’ve spent the money on to grow our business or expand our payroll. This was our most costly mistake since starting the business, and in the end I was almost happy to pay Mr. Leech—just so I’d never have to think of him, or the money, or the things that I could’ve done with the money, ever again.

What to know

Ultimately, because we own The Content Factory, the fault lies entirely with Joanie and me. Here’s where we went wrong:

1. We weren’t familiar with copyright infringement laws. In the legal world, there’s no such thing as common sense, so ours did us no favors. The laws are set up to enrich lawyers, probably because they were written by lawyers. We should have done more research about image copyright laws and copyright infringement penalties, and we should have made everyone on our team aware of the potential damage that can be done if we post the wrong images to blogs.

2. We should’ve noticed that the photo used in the blog wasn’t up to par. It just wasn’t a good shot, and there are about 5,000 others would’ve been better suited for the post.

3. We missed seeing that it was a copyrighted image. All of our writers use royalty-free images, and they have a budget for paid photos when the free options aren’t relevant. This was posted by a newly hired writer, and the one time he used a copyrighted image he got caught. None of his other posts had this particular issue, and it was an editorial oversight on our part.

I fully admit that we were at in the wrong—but to the tune of $8,000? That works out to almost $100 per page view. Had we been a smaller company and didn’t think to negotiate a settlement, we could’ve been put out of business.

To be honest, had this happened within the first few months of starting the company, we would’ve probably closed up shop and run back to living one-third of our lives in cubicles, where it’s safe and there’s always health insurance. Make no mistake about it, this practice can be a business killer.

It can happen to you

I’d like to say that we’re just the unlucky victims of an isolated incident, but I’d be lying. It can happen to you, too.

From what we can tell, more and more bloggers are experiencing the same nightmare that we’ve been dealing with. Roni Loren at BlogHer recently wrote about her experience with copyright lawyers, and Web Copy Plus spent $4,000 to settle a similar suit.

In discussing the situation with some of our agency clients, I learned that each and every one of them has been sued before—most of them were able to settle for less than half of the original amount demanded by the plaintiff’s lawyer. This problem isn’t going away, so the only thing you can do as a blog content producer is protect yourself.

You might not find a lot of stories about these ridiculous copyright infringement penalties online, because few people are willing to publicly admit that they “stole” a photo—by accident or otherwise. Few agencies are willing to go on record and say that they made a mistake while working on a client’s account, and few bloggers want to risk their reputations by publicizing such a rookie error.

[RELATED: Learn why you need a content marketing plan at our fall content marketing boot camp.]

We want to help spread the word about copyright infringement laws and their potential impact on small businesses and bloggers, because we want the fewest number of people to be victimized by these legal practices. Until we can change the laws, or the way the laws are applied, we all have to be in cover-your-butt mode.

Roni Loren did a really great job explaining how to avoid the trap that she fell in, and WikiHow’s page on avoiding copyright infringement will help bring you up to speed on image copyright laws.

Kari DePhillips is co-founder of The Content Factory. A version of this post originally appeared on agency’s blog.

and from PN Web Design

With the ever growing use of content management systems to allow people to manage and run their own websites, the risk of falling foul to a copyright claim is all too common if you fail to adhere to the basic guidelines on complying with copyright law.

Unfortunately there are countless cases of copyright claims sent every day to websites, big and small which have arisen from someone who often did not intend to breach copyright laws but has done so due to a simple misunderstanding.

YoutubeThe nature of the internet over the past 5-10 years has altered due to the increase in connection speeds through broadband lines. This has allowed for more media to be shared such as music, videos, films, games & programs using torrent software. Torrenting is currently a hot topic of contempt with the media industry trying to assert their control of the internet and shutting down offending sites like Mega Upload and to push for US Congress to approve internet control in the form of bills such as SOPA.

As a culture, and with social media exploding, you could easily assume that the internet is now a place to share everything. There are endless ways to transfer and download media without a single penny being spent. Whilst this may be true when it comes to your own personal media such as family photos and your home videos this is not true for content which has been created by someone else who makes a living from their creations or a business that produces paid media and suffers financial losses through the availability of sharing sites.

You are most likely completely familiar with the illegal sharing of the latest films or sharing pirate software and have strong feelings against this but you may not be aware that the habits that you have built over time that help you run your web site fall into the same category as illegally downloading your favourite films.

I’ll explain what the issues are, the risks, how you will get caught and how you can avoid it.

What is image theft?

The best example of image theft that I can guarantee 99% of people have used at some point, and some others will do so on a daily basis, is to populate their website, print material or projects  by using Google images to find pictures. (Or any search engine, Flickr & Image Sharing site etc) This is a gross misunderstanding of what this type of Image searching is designed for.

Contrary to belief it is not intended to supply visitors with images ready to save and use for projects, it is merely a replica of the main search function for finding websites. It should also be treated in the same way for finding and browsing only.

If you search for an image and then open up the image preview window you can see at the very bottom Google has a small statement that says ‘Images may be subject to copyright’. This is a warning that the images may or may not be suitable for your use. If you are creating a banner for your web site and you need a nice blue sky picture and you find one on Google, save it and use it you may believe that there is no problem. Some people may assume that if it is on the internet or it does not have a watermark over the image (A watermark is a faint logo placed over the image to show the image owner) then it can be used without a problem.

The Truth

Any image that does not belong to you, is not yours. An image does not need to have any visible watermarks to be copyrighted. The original photographer / designer always owns the rights to that image and using it without his or her express permission is a breach of their copyright and can land you in trouble.

The Tricks

It has been a long established belief that by cropping, flipping or digitally editing the original image, you can remove the watermark and make the image usable and untraceable. You may be surprised to find this is false!

How You Will Get Caught

Image robberyThere is advanced and highly efficient software and websites freely available that offer tracking on images. Large stock websites such as Getty Images use this advanced technique and a lot of photographers are finding this method beneficial to protecting their images.

The software works by placing an invisible watermark on the image that cannot be seen by the eye. This watermark can survive heavy editing such as cropping, air brushing, resaving, colour changes and other aggressive manipulation techniques. The owner then lets the software go to work and it trawls the internet searching for all instances of the image and reports back. The owner then correlates the results with who has permission and who is using the image illegally.

The Risks

The risks are very high. If you have used an image from a major stock image site, their legal teams that will pursue you will be highly efficient and backed up with a large budget to spend. You have very little chance of overcoming a lawsuit from such companies. The law looks upon you as being in clear breach of the rules.

If you are lucky enough to be contacted by a fairly reasonable image owner, they may send you a cease and desist letter indicating that you have a certain amount of time to remove all instances of the image and to produce to them a written letter indicating that you have removed. Always remember you are in the wrong and have committed the breach so they are within rights to pursue further action.

How To Avoid Issues

The most bullet proof way is to refrain from using images that you have no permission for. This leaves you with the issue of where do you find images now?

You can be granted permission to use someone’s image and they may or may not charge you a fee for this. Generally, in order to fully comply you should seek to have written permission from the owner stating that you have permission to use the image, where you are allowed to use the image and any other specific details that relate to your usage and would help you defend yourself if in the event that the owner later challenges your usage in the future. You may also be required to place a credit to the original owner on the web page stating their name and their website address.

This can be a lengthy process and sometimes there is no indication of who the original creator was so the other option and my most highly recommended option is to use stock photo websites such asiStock Photo. With this method you will be sure to find an extensive range of high quality images by professional photographers with royalty free usage rights. This means after purchase, you can reuse the image as many times as you want within the image usage guidelines found on the site.

Stock ImagesThis will cost you and some images can be upwards of £75 for a single image although you can search based on price in order to find good value images for sometimes as little as a few pounds and iStock works on a pay as you go basis as well as contractual. If you wish not to pay for your images then there are several  free sites available such as ours but do be aware that these images must only be used within the usage guidelines set out and some images must be credited by the original creator in order to comply and the quality of these images are sometimes very poor.

In summary, this may come as a surprise to you that what you thought was common image saving practice is in breach of the same copyright rules as downloading a film. It is best to avoid all issues and the cost of paying for an image at £3 is a lot less than facing a £3500 image copyright claim if you get caught. Always remember to be safe with your content!