Where did the images on your website or blog come from? If your answer is “I don’t know,” or “We copied them from Google,” then you are at risk of being sued for copyright infringement.

This is a legal process that can cost your business hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

If you just thought, “Oh boy, we may be in trouble here,” know that you are not alone. Many educated and experienced business professionals don’t understand the rules when it comes to sourcing images from the Web — mainly because the rules are complicated and, quite frankly, confusing to research.

Companies are more at risk now than in years past because content marketing and blogging are promoted as something small business owners should be doing on their own.

Also, more companies are taking control of their own websites with tools like WordPress, so they now have the ability to change content and add images at will. Many are jumping in without knowing about copyright laws.

Who really cares?

It’s not uncommon for people to assume nobody will notice or care if their small business in Bellingham, WA copies an image or two from the Internet. But that’s an incorrect assumption.

Companies that represent the copyrighted work of professional photographers are continually scanning the Web looking for unauthorized uses of their clients’ work. Fair enough. Those photographers, and the companies that license and manage their images, are in business, too, and deserve to be paid for their work.

If an image is found on your site that you do not have permission to use, the photographer or their representative can send you a Cease and Desist letter, DMCA Take-down Notice, an invoice for an appropriate license fee, or you could receive a letter from an attorney regarding a copyright infringement lawsuit. According to the Wikipedia Copyright infringement article, “Copyright infringement disputes are usually resolved through direct negotiation, a notice and take down process, or litigation in civil court.”

Reducing risk

The first and most important thing to understand is that if you have not received permission to use an image, or if you cannot prove that you purchased the rights to use it, you may be at risk.

There are two steps you can take today to mitigate that risk.

If you or one of your employees has been copying images from Google (with the old “right click, save as” function), you should stop that tactic immediately and remove any copied images from your website or blog. Delete them from your computer, too, so you don’t forget and reuse them in the future. Replace the photos with lawfully obtained ones.

If a friend, family member or even a professional Web developer created your website or blog, you should ask them where they sourced images. Ask if proof of purchase is available or if the images abide by image-licensing rules. You will need proof if trademark infringement companies come calling.

There are limitless options for sourcing photos on the Internet. For the sake of this article, we’re sticking with free, or super affordable, choices that fit the needs of small-business owners with limited marketing budgets.

Here are four sources to consider:

  • Take your own photos. This is the safest option. Smartphones and point-and-shoot cameras have never been easier to use, and the quality is generally good enough for websites and blogs.
  • Use images sourced through Creative Commons. You can use Creative Commons licensed images as long as you follow the license conditions (see sample), which usually includes crediting the photographer/artist. Search the Commons to find images that fit your needs.
  • Use public domain images. The University of Washington Libraries is a valuable resource that offers sources for copyright free images. Just make sure you filter any searches to only include Creative Commons images and follow the use rules.
  • Talk with local photographers about access to their stock photographs. They may be willing to allow use for a nominal fee or even for free if you credit them next to the image.

Quick tips:

  • There are different levels of image licensing, so if you purchase a photo online to use on your blog, you may not have permission to use the same image on your website or in print. Understand what you are buying.
  • The term “Royalty Free” does not mean an image is free to use. It means that once you’ve purchased the image, you can use it in a variety of ways (blog, website, print materials) without having to pay extra.
  • The end user (owner of the blog or website) is responsible for ensuring images have been obtained in a lawful manner. Consider having a company policy in place for how and where images are sourced.

In closing, please note that the information shared in this article is for basic educational purposes only and is not intended as legal counsel. Contact an attorney to learn more about copyright infringement laws or if you think your company is at risk.

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