Today when we need something, we turn to the internet to search for it. Need a recipe… no problem. Need a design idea for your daughter’s room…look one up on Pinterest. Need to find a specific product…just search the internet for it. Need some images for your social media or website….WAIT! This is one area where searching for what you need on the internet will lead to nasty letters and big fines.

It seems harmless to add a quick image of a politician to your blog about recent legislature or an image of a person on the phone you found on the internet to use on the customer service page of your website. But unless you have received permission from the copyright owner, you may be asking for trouble and a legal issue. Many people have the misconception that if an image is on the internet it’s up for grabs. This is NOT true. Images have an automatic copyright attached to them the moment they are created.

Copyright info to know…

Who owns the copyright to an image? According to the Copyright Act of 1976, ownership is with the author or authors of the work, or with the employer in the case of work made for hire where there is an agreement that clearly states who holds ownership of the work. A copyright is an automatic right and is attached to the work upon it’s creation. There’s no requirement for filing special paperwork like trademarks and patients. For imagery, the copyright owner is the photographer who clicked the shutter or in some cases the employer of the photographer where a specific arrangement is in place as a work for hire. The subject of the photograph does not have anything to do with ownership of the copyright. For example, when you have your portrait taken, you do not own the copyright because the image is of you. The photographer owns the copyright because they created the work by clicking the shutter or the artist by applying paint to canvas. Copyrights can be transferred in whole or in part to another person in writing and must be signed by the original copyright owner. Make sure to understand how you have permission to use any photographs.

In 1998, Congress implemented the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to extend protection to works like ebooks, photographs, websites, music, even software and databases. Under this act you are required to obtain permission from the copyright holder for uses such as:

  • Scanning a photograph
  • Use of an image from a website
  • Upload an image to a website
  • Forward an image in the body of or as an attachment to an email

But there is this thing called Fair Use?

The Fair Use Doctrine allows for limited and reasonable uses as long as the use does not interfere with the owners’ rights or impede their right to with the work as they wish. This legal exception to the exclusive rights of an owner does not mean “free use”. It was put in place to allow for copyrighted work to be used for purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research, such uses are not considered infringement of copyright. An example of fair use of an image online can be made in the instance of a product review. If you want to use a image of the product in the review, you may want to use one from the manufacturers website because you couldn’t possible take a better photo. In this example the use of the image is fair use because it is for the benefit of the public.

There are several things to consider for testing whether or not use of an image is protected by Fair Use Doctrine. Ultimately, only a court can legally rule on this, but you can use these as a guide:

  1. Why are you using the image?
  2. Have you transformed the image?
  3. How much of the image are your using?
  4. What is the effect of the use to the public or the owner of the copyrighted work?

What are the legal alternatives?

So how do you create a digital presence full of color and appropriate imagery without the risk of copyright infringement?

  1. Take the photo yourself – While this seems like the best alternative given all there is to know about copyright laws and infringement, it may not be ideal if you don’t have a creative eye. You want your digital presence to create a connection with your audience and photos taken (even the best camera phones) may not suffice. This is a great option for blog images included in the body of the blog. Just make sure to look at the image closely and the details, you wouldn’t want to be embarrassed because of something in the background you did not notice.
  2. Hire a photographer – This option is ideal. You get to stage the photos and get exactly what you want. Make sure to have the photographer provide a license or transfer the copyright so you may use them to promote your business.
  3. Purchase Stock Images – There are many sites you can purchase an image with a license to use images. Make sure to purchase the right licenses and understand the approved uses for the image under the license.
  4. Common Use images – there are several sites that provide images under a Common Use license
  5. Request permission from the owner – Found an image online that is just perfect? Contact the owner and ask for written permission. In most cases, you will need to provide information for how you intend to use the image. And they may request a fee for use.

With social media and online marketing, you want to put your best foot forward and present your business to your audience in a visually pleasing way. It is not always inexpensive to do and the “do it now and ask for forgiveness later” application definitely does not apply in this situation. Spending the $20 for a stock image now hurts less than the thousands it could cost in a copyright infringement case.

NOTE: This article is meant to be informative and in no way constitutes legal advice. Make sure you review the copyright laws and consult your attorney if you feel unsure about the use of an image.