Knowing copyright rules on the Web | Contributor

By Patti Rowlson
Courtesy to The Bellingham Business Journal

Where did the images on your website or blog come from? If your answer is “I don’t know,” or “we copied them from Google,” then you are at risk of being sued for copyright infringement.

This is a legal process that can cost your business hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

If you just thought “oh boy, we may be in trouble here,” know that you are not alone.Many educated and experienced business professionals don’t understand the rules when it comes to sourcing images from the Web—mainly because the rules are complicated and, quite frankly, boring to research.

Companies are more at risk now than in years past because content marketing and blogging are promoted as something small business owners should be doing on their own.

Also, more companies are taking control of their own websites with tools like WordPress, so they now have the ability to change content and add images at will. Many are jumping in without knowing about copyright laws.

Who really cares?

It’s not uncommon for people to assume nobody will notice or care if their small business copies an image or two from the Internet. But that’s an incorrect assumption.

Companies that represent the copyrighted work of professional photographers are continually scanning the Web looking for unauthorized uses of their clients’ work. Fair enough. Those photographers, and the companies that license and manage their images, are in business, too, and deserve to be paid for their work.

If an image is found on your site and the distribution company cannot find a license for its use in their records, a legal document called a Settlement Demand is often sent from the distributor’s license compliance department. This document outlines the image they feel was used unlawfully and how much money is requested as compensation.

Once a Settlement Demand is received, the end user (that’s you) has to prove the images used were lawfully sourced. This proof can come in the form of an invoice or sales order for images that were purchased online.

Reducing risk 

The first and most important thing to understand is that if you have not received permission to use an image, or did not purchase the rights to use it from a reputable source, you may be at risk.

There are two steps you can take today to mitigate that risk.

If you or one of your employees has been copying images from Google (with the old “right click, save as” function), you should stop that tactic immediately and remove any copied images from your website or blog. Replace the photos with lawfully obtained ones.

If a friend, family member or even a professional Web developer created your website or blog, you should ask them where they sourced images. Ask if proof of purchase is available or if the images abide by image-licensing rules.

There are limitless options for sourcing photos on the Internet. For the sake of this column, we’re sticking with free, or super affordable, choices that fit the needs of small-business owners with limited marketing budgets.

Here are five sources to consider:

-Take your own photos. This is the safest option. Point and shoot cameras (and even smartphones) have never been easier to use, and the quality is generally good enough for blogs.

-Use public domain images found on Bing or Google. Additional information and instructions are found in this article.

-Use images sourced through Creative Commons. Learn about the site through this link. (Here’s an example of an image found by searching Creative Commons.  The photographer has publicly given permission for anyone to use the image in any way.)

-Use images sourced through lawfully-obtained copies of Microsoft Office. Learn how in this article.

-Talk with local photographers about access to their stock photographs. They may be willing to allow use for a nominal fee or even for free if you credit them next to the image.

In closing, please note that the information shared in this article is for basic educational purposes only and is not intended as legal counsel. Please contact an attorney to learn more about copyright infringement laws or if you think your company is at risk.

Quick tips

– There are different levels of image licensing, so if you purchase a photo online to use on your blog, you may not have permission to use the same image on your website or in print.  Understand what you are buying.

– The term “Royalty Free” does not mean an image is free to use. It means that, once purchased, you can use the image in a variety of ways (blog, website, print materials).

– The end user (owner of the blog or website) is responsible for ensuring images have been obtained in a lawful manner. Consider having a company policy in place for how and where images are sourced.

Patti Rowlson is a marketing consultant and social media manager at PR Consulting Inc. She helps Whatcom County small businesses identify, implement and consistently maintain marketing-related programs. Learn more about small-business marketing by connecting with PR Consulting on social media sites or by visiting  

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