5 crucial rules for using online images

Social media experts tell you that 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 onto
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.

Unauthorized use of photos can be 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

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 …”

Though there are statutory damages of $ 750 to $ 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.

The Mavrix case has yet to be heard but the concepts are similar to Pacific Stock. Important, 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 online photos

So, how can you 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 limited time (e.g., one
month), and others even allow you to sub-license the photo. Each site
has its own licensing rules, so 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 or otherwise altering a photo?
Again, you have to look to the license. Some will allow you to
manipulate the photo and use it; others will not.

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

Lessons learned

Many laws that apply to the use of photographs also apply to symbols,
logos, vector images, and even drawings. Before you decide to use that
terrific image, make sure you are not violating the owner’s copyright.

Andy Goldberg is the driving force behind Innova AdLaw. A version of this article first appeared on Innova’s website.

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