What I Learned About Copyright Law from an $800 Violation | Fluxe Digital Marketing

What I Learned About Image Copyright Law from an $800 Violation

By Joel Widmer | Content Marketing

Sep 05
what I learned copyright law violation

Have you ever needed an image for a web page or blog post, so you jumped on Google images and grab the first one that seemed relevant?

That’s how I learned an $800 lesson back in 2013.

Like many people, I didn’t think copyright owners really cared if their images were used without permission. Even if they cared, there are billions of images on the web. How could a copyright owner possibly track every use?

Well, they can. 

People who make their living licensing images and videos will actively protect their property. Going after others who use their images without permission is one of the main ways they make their money.

I found an image through a Google search and posted it to my client’s website. The image was the property of a popular stock photo source, but I didn’t know that at the time.

Two months later, my client received a letter from the stock photo company explaining that their image had been used without proper licensing (meaning they knew my client never purchased rights to use it).

They included proof of their ownership, a link to the image’s sale page, a link to the client’s website where the image appeared, and even a screenshot of the offending page so I couldn’t remove the image and deny the whole thing.

There was no mistake: I had violated their copyright on a commercial website. From the stock photo company’s perspective, my client and I were making money using their unlicensed image.

They demanded the image removed and $1,200 as compensation.

Now, technically my client was the violator because the image appeared on their website. They trusted me to manage their online presence, but I exposed them to a lawsuit.

In the end, I convinced the stock photo company to accept $800. I wanted to haggle further, but I feared a prolonged exchange would upset my client. So I settled the issue, paid the fee, and learned a hard lesson.

Great Content Needs Great Visuals

There’s no doubt that visuals are a critical part of content marketing. Images and videos support your copy and influence your reader’s response to the content.

You would struggle to find a popular blog without at least a featured image atop each post. The best publications use relevant images throughout their posts as well.

Articles with images get 94% more views (partly because we like them and partly because Google favors them). Images also boost the effectiveness of press releases, local search results, ecommerce stores, and email campaigns

What’s more, images help us consume and retain content as well. We only remember 10% of what we read. If an image sits alongside that information, we remember 65%.

They also pack a lot of meaning into small spaces. If you were trying to make the reader feel relaxed and peaceful, you might pair the copy with a breezy beach image. The reader knows how that scene feels, so they ascribe that feeling to the entire page.

But if you aren’t an image or video creator, you need to use other people’s work for your content. Most of us don’t have the time or resources to photograph the perfect scene for every blog post.

There are lots of sources of images and videos, but it’s important to protect yourself by respecting copyrights

What Exactly is a Copyright?

A copyright is a legal protection for intellectual property.

The purpose of copyright law is to encourage the creation of intellectual property by giving creators some control over its use. They can set restrictions (like “no commercial use”) and requirements (like payment or attribution).  

As soon as someone begins creating (writing, photographing, painting, composing, coding, or whatever), a copyright exists, even if the work is unpublished. Copyrights applies to literary, dramatic, written, artistic, musical, photographic, recorded, and various other types of work.

There’s no special paperwork of licensing required, but registering a copyright (which means you can use the symbol – the C within a circle) makes enforcing the right much easier.

Copyright holders have the exclusive right to reproduce the work, display it, create derivative work, and distribute copies of the work for compensation. They can also sell, rent or lease their rights to someone else.

Copyrights aren’t granted to public domain works. A public domain work is a word, slogan, name, phrase, blank form, or government asset that’s freely available for anyone to use.

You can’t use a copyrighted work without express consent from the owner. However, there is one legal exception. There's an excellent copyright guide here for a more detailed look at what copyright is.

One Exception: The Fair Use Doctrine

The Fair Use Doctrine is a rule that allows you to use copyrighted works for the good of the public without the owner’s permission.

It allows for limited and reasonable use of copyrighted material as long as the use doesn’t interfere with the owner's’ rights. You can’t, for instance, use an image under Fair Use if it somehow prevented the owner from selling licenses.  

Here’s an example:

You want to post a review of a product you purchased recently. You want to include a photo to illustrate your point, so you take one from the manufacturer’s website.

Since the photo doesn’t substitute the product (no one would think “Now that I have this photo, I have no reason to buy the product”), you are likely protected by the Fair Use Doctrine.

The Fair Use Doctrine does not apply to licenses sold (like the paid ones on stock photo sites) and creative commons images because they carry specific usage rights. It also doesn’t apply to public domain images because they aren’t subject to copyright law at all.  

Fair Use is an extremely complicated subject. Whether the Fair Use Doctrine applies is hard to determine outside of court. It’s especially frustrating for copyright holders who want to protect their intellectual property, so many will defend themselves seriously.

Before you use copyrighted material as Fair Use, read Section 107 of the Copyright Act thoroughly.

(Important note: I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. If you aren’t sure whether you can use someone’s intellectual property, speak to a copyright expert or find another asset.)

If you use stock images and want to know the usage rules for those, here's a great guide.

5 Ways to Avoid Copyright Violations

Unless you have read and complied with an image or video’s license, it’s smart to assume you don’t have permission to use it.

While it’s possible to use an asset under the Fair Use Doctrine, in my experience it’s never worth the risk. If the copyright owner decides to act, he or she may demand a fee as compensation. At worst, they could complain to your host who might take down your website.

Here’s how you can make sure an image is safe to use.

1. Stick to free stock photo websites

There are dozens of websites filled with countless quality photos, all with open licenses. Some of our favorites are Pexels and Pixabay.

Most free stock photo sites collect as many images as they can, but some sites like Startup Stock and Unsplash stick to a theme or style.

Free stock photo websites usually display licensing information that applies to the entire website. For instance, Pexels’ licensing page explains that all images on their site fall under the

Creative Commons Zero License, meaning they…

  • Can be modified, copied or distributed
  • Used for any purpose (even commercial)
  • Used without attribution

If you limit yourself to stock photos websites like this, you would never have to worry about copyright infringement. (This is how I protect myself from further fees.)

2. Obey the image or video’s license

If the website where you found the image or video doesn’t have a uniform license for all of their assets, make sure you find the asset’s specific licensing information.

In some cases, the licensing information will be on the same page.

In other cases, you’ll find a link to a generic licensing form.

Most of the time those links will point to generic pages like this:

These creative commons pages look similar, but the information within them can be different, so make sure you read the text before using the image.

In many cases, the license will require attribution. This is when you credit the license holder in text with a link, like this: Photo credit: Rick Schwartz / Flickr

The credit should be displayed as close to the image as possible, especially if you have multiple images on the page that require attribution.

3. Ask the copyright holder

Most people won’t care whether you use the image because they don’t use their art to earn money. Some, however, will request attribution or payment. It’s up to you whether you’ll meet their request.

If you really want to use a particular image, but can’t find licensing information, it never hurts to ask the creator. Reach out to them through email, their website contact form, or social media.

If you decide to use their image, keep emails (or other documentation) of the exchange as proof of their permission.

If you decide to use their image, keep emails (or other documentation) of the exchange as proof of their permission.

4. Use the provided embed code

In some cases, a license holder will provide HTML code to paste into your website to display an image or video. You’ve probably seen this on YouTube. Infographic websites are known for it as well. 

They want you to use this method so they retain control. They could break the code at any time or adjust it to stop working on your website, if they choose.

As always, check the licensing details to be sure you aren’t violating their copyright before embedding the code (they might prohibit their assets on your type of content), but you can be reasonably sure they won’t sue.

5. If all else fails, follow this flow chart

If you still aren’t clear whether you can use an image, follow this chart by Visually.

To use this chart, start with “Can I use that picture?” on the left. Follow the arrows and answer the questions you come across.

Skip the Hassle, Use Safe Marketing Images

I don’t want to be all “doom and gloom,” but getting caught using copyrighted images is easier than you think.

Image recognition software is quite advanced. Repositories monitor the web for their images and videos. If they detect someone hasn’t purchased the proper license, they have entire teams of people dedicated to seeking compensation. (Check out this reverse image search tool to try it yourself.)

Hopefully you’ll learn from my mistake and avoid big fines. Just follow the five steps I outlined above and you’ll save yourself a lot of hassle and money. 


About the Author

Joel Widmer is the Founder & CEO of Fluxe Digital Marketing—a content marketing shop that helps smart businesses create, produce and promote their content through a unique one-on-one interview process. When he’s not working, Joel can be found trying new restaurants with his wife, son, and daughter.

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