5 Rules To Follow Before Using That Image You Found On The Web

Photos and Images Are Great For Your Website, But . . .

Social media experts always tell you having photographs on your website is great for SEO and reader engagement.  But it’s not as simple as pulling an image or photo from another website and cutting and pasting it into your site.  And “no, Google Images are not free”.  If you don’t get permission from the photo copyright owners, you can end up paying a lot of money in damages and suffer bad PR for your site.

copyright, images, photos, DMCA,

Reminder That Unauthorized Use Of Photos Is VERY Expensive

Two lawsuits, Mavrix Photo, Inc. v. BuzzFeed, Inc. and Pacific Stock, Inc. v. MacArthur & Company, Inc., et. al., bring this point home.   Both cases demonstrate what can go wrong when you use copyrighted photographs without permission from the copyright owner.

In Pacific Stock, MacArthur failed to respond to the lawsuit and a default judgment was entered against it.  Exacerbating its problem, MacArthur actually included false copyright information when it used the photos.  Among the allegations against MacArthur were “unfair competition, unlawful appropriation, unjust enrichment, unlawful appropriation, wrongful deception of the purchasing, and unlawful trading on Pacific’s goodwill …”  While there are statutory damages of $750 – $150,000 per violation of the Copyright Act, MacArthur also violated the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) which provides for statutory damages of $2,500 to $25,000 for each violation.   Because of the outrageous violations of Plaintiff’s copyright, the court hammered MacArthur with a large award and forced it to pay Pacific’s legal fees.  Ouch!

The Mavrix case has yet to be heard but the concepts are similar to Pacific Stock. Importantly, and also a factor in the Pacific Stock case, the photographs had registered copyrights.  Therefore, Mavrix can claim statutory damages without having to prove actual damages.

5 Rules To Remember Before Using That Photo You Found On The Web

So, how can a blog, or other website, avoid this pain?  Here are five quick and easy rules to keep in mind.

1.         Always assume you cannot use the image unless shown otherwise.  Just because the image does not have the © sign does not mean it is not copyrighted or protected.

2.         Each stock photo service (e.g. iStock, 123rf, shutterstock) has different royalty options and terms.  Some allow you to pay for a photograph and use it an unlimited number of times only on your site.  Others allow unlimited use but only for a specific time (e.g. one month) and others even allow you to sub-license the photo.  Each site has its own licensing rules, so be sure to check each site’s terms and conditions before using a photo.

3.         Just because a photo carries a Creative Commons License (CCL), does not mean you can use it freely.  The CCL comes in different varieties, each imposing varying limits.

4.         So what about Photoshopping a photo?  Again, you have to look to the license.  Some will allow you to manipulate the photo and use it, while others will not.

5.         Don’t assume fair use, the holy grail of the copyright world, allows you to use any photo you want.  It doesn’t.

Lessons Learned

Many law that apply to the use of photographs also apply to symbols, logos, vector images, and even drawings.  So, before you decide to use that great looking image, make sure you are not violating the owner’s copyright.

Now it’s your turn. Tell me what you think about this post, and any other comments you have. I want to hear from you.

Related Posts:

  1. Work For Hire: You Paid For It, But You Might Not Own It.  Part 1  and Part 2
  2. Who Has Authority To Let You Use Copyright Materials?  Link Here
  3. Companies Now Have More Tools To Fight Employees Who Steal Trade Secrets Link Here

Image courtesy of Anusorn P. Nachol and www.freedigitalphotos.net




About Andy Goldberg

Andy Goldberg is the driving force behind Innova AdLaw. For more than two decades Andy has successfully counseled diverse businesses in achieving their professional goals and managing their risks. His extensive experience in the advertising and marketing industries includes serving as legal advisor to the The Adcraft Club of Detroit and Michigan Direct Marketing Association as well as serving as a board member of The Adcraft Club of Detroit.


  1. Terez Baskin says:

    Thanks Andy.

    This is really good to know. I always try to give the source of the photo if it isn’t mine. As a photographer. I’ve had my images stolen and not been given credit. I think just sharing the sources is enough no?

  2. Alan Ralph says:

    Fortunately, Google Image Search can also be used to track down usage of your work online – point it at the image URL on your website or upload a copy of the image, and Google will do the rest. Another good tool for finding copies of images is TinEye. These can also be useful if you’ve spotted an image that might be someone else’s work that has been used without attribution or permission. Of course, it’s also useful to have human eyes on the lookout for your work being used elsewhere.

    Sadly, a lot of people out there either don’t understand or accept the concept of copyright, or think that they can get away with it if it’s not a big-name artist or photographer. But thanks to social media these guys rarely stay undiscovered for long. Getting them to stop is more of a problem, particularly if they’re in a different part of the world.

    I will be sure to point future clients to this article if they need clueing up on copyright!

    • Andy Goldberg says:

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, TinEye is a great tool. Everyone using images should at least start the process with this tool. However, it only tells you where the image has been used, not whether or who owns a copyright.

      You also make a great point about how to enforce your copyright when they are unlawfully used in other parts of the world. This is not solely the problem of IP; it’s in all business matters. The cost of pursuing a claim and trying to enforce your rights may just be too expensive than just letting it go. One tool that I have found useful, is to actually turn social media against these people: Use Twitter, LinkedIn, to publicly shame the people who are unlawfully using IP.

      Thanks again for your comments.

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