Suppose you find the cutest kitten photo online. Without giving it much thought, you cut and paste it into a blog post about your childhood pet. You share the post on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Two months later, you open an email from some lawyer accusing you of copyright infringement and demanding a $2000 payment.
Unfortunately, this is not a far-fetched scenario. Downloading an image from the internet is so simple many people forget that the images are the result of someone’s hard work and may be protected by copyright. In fact, many people think anything posted on the internet is free to use.
Easy Doesn't Equal Free
Images are intellectual property. If you use someone’s property without permission, whether it’s a car, a bicycle, or a photograph, it’s called stealing. And the chances of getting caught are increasing every day.
International stock image companies and professional photographers are signing up with TinEye and similar image search companies to scan the internet for infringing users. With ever-improving technology, these search engines locate images even if they have been cropped and altered, up to a point. TinEye claims to have indexed almost 16 billion images for its search engine.
What about fair use? Doesn’t that cover blogging?
Maybe, but only if your blog is non-commercial and your use is for purposes of education, commentary, review or parody. For example, if you use the kitten image to comment on its composition and quality, that would be fair use. But it is not fair use to use that same photo as an eye-catching hook in a post reminiscing about your childhood.
Fair use is a legal defense. You will need to hire an attorney to help you. And do you really want to fight that fight with Getty Images or Reuters News or Rupert Murdoch?
Resources & Best Practices
Writers need not risk copyright infringement or argue about fair use. Hundreds of sites offer free public domain images or low-cost stock images. Nina Amir listed some great sources in her post, Use Photos to Enhance the Visual Appeal and Shares of Your Posts.
I list more on my site, From Astronauts to Van Gogh’s; Little Known Sources for Public Domain Images.
Personally, I prefer to pay for images from a stock image company such as Dreamstime or iStockphoto. I have more confidence that they may grant permission legally. The images are high-quality and reasonably priced. They are available in different sizes and DPI. The higher the DPI, the better the resolution. For your book cover, purchase a license to a large, high-resolution image, but for your website and blog, a smaller, lower resolution image should work fine.
Purchase a royalty-free license and not an editorial license, which is more restrictive.
If you want to use a particular image that is not in the public domain or a stock image, then contact the site where you found the image. Many are happy to permit you to reuse their material if you provide attribution and a link back to the original site.
If you don’t know the source of the image, do a reverse image search by going to Google Images, clicking on the camera icon in the search line, and uploading the image. You will get a list of results.
If the list includes one or more stock image sites such as Dreamstime, Getty Images or iStockphoto, then if you use that image without permission, you risk getting a nasty lawyer letter. I suggest you delete the unauthorized image and replace it with a licensed one, even if it’s the exact same image. You might get a lawyer letter based on your prior use (after all, nothing completely disappears from the internet), but it will help if you have corrected your mistake.
If you find the image only on news websites, look for a copyright notice on or near the image. Search online for the copyright owner and ask permission to use the image. If you can’t find a copyright notice, contact the largest and most prestigious website using the image. That site is most likely to have obtained permission.
Take an hour and clean up your website so ensure that none of your images are potential copyright infringement time bombs. It’s time well spent.
Finally, for fun, try a Google reverse image search of your author headshot. The results may surprise you. When I ran mine, the Google results included a photo of Julia Roberts as a “visually similar image.”
Sure. Why not.
(Disclaimer: Helen Sedwick is an attorney licensed to practice in California only. This information is general in nature and should not be used as a substitute for the advice of an attorney authorized to practice in your jurisdiction.)
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