Updated: May 24, 2020
Avoid damaging your reputation and exposing yourself or your company to liability by understanding when it’s safe to use photos.
True or False?
If a photo is on the Internet, it’s okay to reuse.
If it doesn’t have a copyright notice, the image can be used.
The Fair Use doctrine allows me to use photos if I’m not publishing them online.
Answers: All false.
The Fair Use doctrine does not apply to for-profit companies. Large global companies are perfect targets for copyright lawsuits. Juries have awarded more than $1 million in damages for copyright infringement.
Can you identify which of these cases occurred at one of my previous companies?
A photographer filed suit against a company for using two photos without permission and won a judgment of $19,462 in federal court.
A photography vendor issued a copyright infringement notice to a company with four unlicensed images on its web site. The images came from a report produced by another firm, which was fined $8,000. Further research revealed that an employee had legally acquired these images, but personally rather than for the company. Fines were negotiated to a smaller sum, but the embarrassment remained.
A court found in favor of a company pursuing a lawsuit against another company for using a photo without permission and manipulating it in Photoshop.
An employee questioned the legality of a photo in a report for a federal agency only to find that the agency had taken it off the Internet. Once identified, the photographer gave usage permission for the photo’s use.
A photographer offered images for a government web site, but when another organization lifted the images, the photographer sued and won £10,000 in damages.
A company hired a web site designer. When a photographer found unlicensed images on the web site, he sued both companies. The court found both companies liable for the copyright infringement.
A project team wanted to use native, natural Alaskan images and found several on the Internet. When steered to photos they could legally purchase, the team chose the legal and ethical solution.
Answers: #2, 4, and 7 happened at my previous company, and the other cases occurred at other companies.
Not only is violating copyright a serious crime, but it’s also unethical. You need to have proper licensing for all business photography, whether used internally or externally.
When you disobey copyright law, you risk damaging your reputation and client relationships.
It’s easy to do the right thing:
Use your own photos! This is always the easiest way to avoid copyright infringement.
Access free images through Microsoft, Google Images, or Flickr Public Domain or other sites offering free stock photos. Chasing Heartbeats Photography has published an article listing the 46 best stock photography sites. If searching one of these techniques, filter the photos to see which ones are okay for commercial use or in the public domain. I obtained the photo at the top of this blog post from Pexels.com, a site with all free photos. The photos above are from Wix and are licensed to be used only on Wix websites.
If it’s a professional photo, email the photographer to get permission or purchase the photos. Keep a record of this exchange and any licensing agreements. If in doubt, always ask!
Purchase photos on stock photo sites designed for creative use.
It used to be much easier for photographers to keep track of their images before the Internet. Respect the use of photographers and artists by making sure you can use their work or better yet, paying for it. It's not only the right thing, but it also protects your own reputation--and your company's!
This article is the first in a series about ways to protect yourself legally and ethically by avoiding copyright infringement.
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