Picture this – how to legally use images online

With websites becoming easier to run and in higher demand by the consumer, issues of copyrighting are becoming more prevalent for business owners. Unfortunately, with this comes the risk of coming into contact with a copyright claim if you don’t follow the law.

More often than not, a simple misunderstanding is the root cause of the countless copyright claims submitted weekly to the authorities. With the advent of social media, it now seems like the internet is a wellspring of information that we can all share and use. This is not the case. Much of the content found on websites like Google Images have been created by a person who makes a living from doing so. These people suffer financial losses as a result of sharing sites.

We at Stori want to help you protect your business by explaining exactly what copyright image theft is, what risks there are and how they can be avoided.

What is copyright image theft?

Almost everyone has been guilty of this at some point, but the most common example of image theft is when people have peppered their website with images sourced from Google, Photobucket, Imgur etc.

These huge caches of images are not intended for this use. These search functions are simply a different form of the main search function in a search engine.

On Google Images, if you open up the image preview window, Google leaves a small statement that says ‘Images may be subject to copyright’ even when there is no watermark on the image. A watermark is a faint logo placed over the image to show the image owner. Many people believe that if it does not have a watermark over the image it can be used without a problem. The statement left by Google is a warning that the any of the images may or may not be suitable for your use.

An image does not need to have any visible watermarks to be copyrighted. The original creator of the image will always own the rights, and so using it without express permission is a breach of copyright law. Just because a website doesn’t have a copyright statement doesn’t mean that you can use their images for free.

It is also possible to ‘hotlink’ an image from another website without actually having it on your web server. This is when your website displays the image directly from another website’s server. Whilst this does not infringe copyrights, it is still very unwise.

Hotlinking uses bandwidth from the image owner’s website. It could be costing them money to show their images on your website. This is bandwidth theft.

Not only is hotlinking rude, you remain at the mercy of the website that is hosting the image for as long as you have it. Sometimes, website owners like to get their revenge on you for hotlinking. A mild response is to change the image to a notice that says something like ‘Stop Hotlinking!’ However, other website owners have been incensed enough to replaces images with explicit images!

Paying for stock images can be expensive, so what real risks are there of using someone else’s images?

Ultimately, using copyrighted images that you don’t have permission for can cause you and your business serious strife. Using copyrighted images seems cheaper and easier, but it can end up costing you a lot more, i.e. hefty fines and public embarrassment. In more serious cases of copyright infringement (as seen in the Mega Upload case) where there has been willful infringement for commercial advantage, the situation may result in criminal proceedings and prison-time.

There is highly efficient software available easily that provides image-tracking. Many photographers are finding this method beneficial to protecting their images. This works by putting an invisible watermark on the image. This watermark survives lots of aggressive manipulation techniques. The software scours the internet for all occurrences of the image. The owner then assesses who has permission and who is using the image illegally.

What could happen to me?

  • You could be contacted by a reasonable owner of images you have used who will send you a cease and desist letter. This letter will inform you that you have a certain amount of time to remove all examples of the image that you have used, and to write them a letter to tell them that you have done so. Always remember that they are within rights to pursue further action, so appear repentant.
  • A ‘take-down’ letter may be sent to your internet service provider. Internet service providers (ISPs) don’t want the hassle of legal complications, and can pull your entire site down without contacting you as a result of you breaching their terms and conditions. When this happens, a serious threat is posed to your customer-base, as they will be unable to access your website.
  • You could be sued. This is largely dependent on any money you made from using copyrighted images, but is still possible. Stock image sites like Getty Images, Shutterstock and iStock have formidable legal teams that will relentlessly pursue you. They are also supported with a large budget. Bear this in mind, as you are very unlikely to best a company like this filing a lawsuit against you. The law is not on your side.

How can I avoid copyright infringement on images?

The obvious response to this question is to not use images that don’t belong to you. However, this can be difficult when you cannot identify the image owner, or are surrounded by staff who are unsure of the rules. Here are our tips to stay safe!

  • Ensure that everyone responsible for managing or maintaining your online presence is familiar with copyright law and plagiarism tools.
  • Ask for permission to use an image. If you don’t get permission, don’t use the image.
  • Use Creative Commons Licensed images available on Wikimedia Commons and similar websites. All works licensed by Creative Commons have a licensed by requirement. This means that you must give credit to the creator of the image.
  • Pay for images through stock image websites. The best examples of websites that offer this service are seen in this blog.
  • Whilst it can be costly in terms of both money and time, try to create your own images wherever possible.

So, there you have it.

There is no reason to use copyrighted images. Sometimes you may need to pay a few pounds to use the image you need, but see this as an infinitely more preferable alternative to a £4,000 copyright claim if you get found out.

Be creative, and tell your own STORI

  • written by Steph Evans


Leave a Reply