It’s often the case with website design projects. Clients routinely email us photos that they “just love” and “cannot wait to see” on their new website. These images normally are perfect; color balanced, great light, ideal subjects, etc. They have the correct colors of the rest of the site design and are cropped just right. No doubt about it – they are amazing.
And, they’re often illegal.
Every photographer will tell you that getting a ‘great’ shot means getting thousands of mediocre or poor shots. It takes time and talent just to be in the right place to capture a good image, much less actually obtain the best. Photography is absolutely an art form and the photographer who captures a picture (any picture) has the right to claim ownership of that image. This isn’t hard to understand, really.
In the world of “point and click” internet, where every social media channel invites you to click and download their post, share their content, and grab their posts, it’s tremendously difficult to know when a photo has copyright. Even more, we can fall into the mistake of thinking that since something was used or shared in social media that the image has somehow become public domain. The problem is that many of the copyright holders know exactly when images are licensed and when they are not.
When it’s not ‘Just a Picture’
We had a phone call once from a small, non-profit. They received a scary letter from a leading company who was the copyright owner for millions of images. Apparently another designer had, somewhere along the way, used an unlicensed image that was owned by this company. In this letter was a cease and desist demand, as well as a suggested penalty of tens of thousands of dollars. Threats of a lawsuit and strong language filled the communication and, obviously, this little non-profit was terrified. The penalty alone would sink them. They would be off the map. Gone. And what’s worse is that they had done nothing wrong. It was, after all, ‘just a picture.”
Thankfully, our team was able to call the copyright owner and comply with the demand for an immediate cease and desist on the use of that photo. We were also successful in negotiating the penalty away (they didn’t want to be known for destroying a small non-profit!). But the point of the story was clear: It could have easily be avoided.
Can you avoid penalties and demand letters?
First of all – take a quick look through your own website. Do you know where your photos come from? Do you know their source and do you have permission to use these images? If you are not completely certain of the license for that image, presume that you do not have a license. The burden of proof is on you, the website owner, to prove the license exists. If you suspect that you have an unlicensed image, we would recommend that you replace that image with a legitimately licensed source as soon as possible.
Second – if you have an unlicensed image, get rid of every copy of that image. This is hard. You might have copies on archives, backups and other legacy sources. Combing through those is not easy, of course. But make sure you do not restore or re-use an licensed image in the future. Get rid of copies that could come back to harm you later.
Third – use reliable, trusted sources for stock photos. Images sourced from “stock libraries” are great for designers and small business. These are usually royalty free and can be used by the license holder for specific purposes. Some licenses give you very broad usage rights and others are limited, so read the fine print. We know many clients like to have broad licenses that enable them to use photos for multiple media sources (print + web) if they’d want to. Bottom line – find a stock source that you like and use them.
Fourth – when you hire an agency to work with you for web or graphic design, be sure they are using licensed images too. It’s important that the company you hire knows how to correctly source and maintain licenses for these copyrighted art pieces. This is protection for your business. Whenever possible, make sure that your company is the named license holder for the artwork.
I’m in trouble. Can you help me?
Of course, we can try. Sometimes we’ve had great success when people receive scary legal threats. We find that complying with cease and desist orders quickly is a major help. But, let’s be real; we’re not attorneys!
We can work with you to correct situations to ensure you don’t end up in this position again. Contact us today and we’ll see how we can help you!