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Acquiring Website Images Legally

By Mira Brody - Last Updated on 09/08/2015

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery - sometimes.
The images on your website are crucial to engaging your customers and maintaining a positive first impression. Before they find the content they are searching for, visual media evokes that initial feeling of trust — trust that they are in the right place, their questions will be answered and that your site is a legitimate source of information. If you don’t personally own the photos you are using on your site, however, you may land yourself in legal troubles. In order to safely use images owned by someone else, you must be granted permission by the copyright holder. Advanced search software now allows these rights holders to easily track down exactly where their photos are being used and, without their permission, you are at risk of being taken to court.

In order to avoid infringing on another’s copyright, there are a number of ways you can legally obtain stunning photos that properly represent your brand while staying true to the owner’s copyright and keeping your business out of trouble.

A brief history of copyright.
The concept of copyrighting began in 1710 Britain in order to protect the assets of book writers. The Statute of Anne allowed book purchasers to do whatever they wished with their own copy, except make additional copies of it. “Making a copy,” however, is a lot less straightforward than it sounds, and doing so in the age of the internet is an even tricker subject. For example, printing a copyrighted article that you did not publish in a book of short stories and linking to that same article in an online forum would be two very different actions in the eyes of copyright (1). Being found infringing a copyright, whether it be written work, music or an image, has typically lead to a cease and desist letter from the original owner.

Cease and desist letters usually contain the first steps toward civil litigation, such as a fee request or a licensing offer, and trigger actions that will quickly resolve the issue at hand. When it comes to using content that you do not possess ownership of, it is best to avoid this financial or legal risk and simply purchase a license or ask permission; the same person who sent you the takedown notice may have said yes if asked.

Tracking their images.
In the past, if you quietly took an image for your own use, there weren’t many tools in place to help enforce that copyright breach, and most often, you could get away with it. Today, if you’re using images that are not your own, and fail to agree to the owner’s license agreement, the odds of you being discovered are substantially higher due to the creation of advanced image search and tracking software. This software employ bots to scour the internet for those breaking copyright law so that the corporations who hire them can monetize on their product. The availability of this software builds a strong case for business owners to stay legal when taking images from outside sources.

Getty Images, a Seattle-based stock photo agency, has created controversy surrounding the opportunistic manner in which they pursue copyright infringement with the help of this software. Rather than send out a general cease and desist letter, they opt to instead track down users, many of whom are unaware of their fault, and threaten legal action for unpaid licensing fees. The fees average about $1,000 a photograph and target anyone from church group sites, to web developers, to small business owners.

While copyright infringement is against the law and stock photo sites, photographers and other artists are within their right to uphold that law and gain compensation for their work, Getty’s way of doing business is considered copyright extortion by many (2). Worse, they aren't the only company who embraces this practice, a fact demonstrated by the tens of thousands of letters that are sent a year (more than those sent for movie and music file sharing violations). The use of advanced software to track copyright violators is becoming increasingly common, keeping companies motivated to either pay up or take down — whatever it takes to stay within the boundaries of the law.

The dangers of a casual image search.
Back in 2010, a copywriter at Webcopyplus made the $4,000 mistake of snagging an image off of a Google image search to place in a blog. The blog was published on a client’s site and subsequently found by the image’s rightful owner. Although they complied immediately in removing the photo and issued an apology, the copyright holder still demanded a fee. To properly purchase the photo would have only cost $10 (3).

While many website owners, designers or copywriters may be tempted to Google search the image they are looking for and use the perfect photo, the risk is much higher than the quick satisfaction of saving a few bucks. The safest assumption? Everything is copyrighted unless otherwise specified.

Fair use and public domain.
There are a couple of the aforementioned specifications that allow works to be shared for free, namely when it falls under fair use or public domain. Comedy shows, such as The Daily Show or South Park, are allowed to show, and even mock, news clips, songs and characters. News sources have the power to display photo and video from a subject’s social media page without acquiring permission. Teachers exercise their right to fair use daily when they distribute photocopies of literature and worksheets from a textbook. Although he has a longstanding tradition of asking permission first, fair use is the same right that allows the Weird Al to turn any song he desires into an ode on aluminum foil or the lifestyles of the Amish. It sanctions copyrighted works to be used without cost for purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching or research and potentially protects many uses of intellectual property.

Public domain is similar in that it allows legal use of works that would otherwise be copyrighted due to expiration or forfeiture. Shakespeare, Beethoven and Newton are victims of public domain, as any works created before 1989 are usually considered to be expired or non-applicable (4). This is why you can print off an Edgar Allen Poe poem or read Treasure Island online without paying for their copyright.

There are a plethora of resources for those looking for images released under public domain, either because their copyright has expired or because their owners have deliberately released their work for anyone to use however they want. Sites such as pixabay, picjumbo and PublicDomainPictures are some providers of these sources.

If you’re not entirely certain that your usage falls under fair use or public domain, you aren’t necessarily out of luck, you are just required to gain legal access to a copyrighted piece of work by asking permission from the original owner with a description of how the material will be used — with an agreement to pay any associated fees. Sites such as EveryStockPhoto and Flickr offer some photos that are protected by a Creative Commons license that makes them free for use with the appropriate attribution — each photo includes information about how the copyright holder would like to be credited if you use their photo. There’s also the option of finding a photo source, such as ShutterStock, who will allow you to use their images for an easy monthly membership fee.

The most failsafe way of keeping yourself removed from the confines of anyone else’s licensing terms and fees is to create, or hire someone else to create, the images yourself. That way, you will own the copyright or negotiate an arrangement with your photographer for exclusive copyrights to their work.

Keep it legal.
Image agencies, photographers and other artists who work to produce quality work can and will use image tracking software to find out who is utilizing their efforts and which sources are not paying. Chances are, if you’re not a source of monetary gain to them, they won’t think twice about slapping on a hefty fee for your copyright infringement, no matter your excuse.

Work you create or directly commission is likely to be more relevant to those visiting your website than bland clipart or stock photos. Likewise, paying for professional stock photos gives you access to higher caliber material than you can typically access for free -- above all, infringing a copyright can have some serious consequences and it is well worth the time and money to be sure you’re using images legally.

Mira Brody:

About Mira Brody

Mira Brody is an editor, writer, and marketing expert with 12+ years of experience. She has worked as a local news reporter, a writer/editor, and as a leader in large-scale branding strategy. Mira worked at JTech as the staff writer and editor for internal and client projects from March 2015 to December 2019.

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