4 ways to land yourself in legal trouble when using images

The internet is chock-full of visual content, and it’s all free for the taking, right? You bet your logo it’s not. Here are common transgression areas and how you can avoid getting sued.

How to avoid legal troubles with photos

PR and marketing are all about strategic communication, but messaging isn’t about words alone. 

The images communicators use to raise awareness, build their organization’s reputation and position their brand are an important part of any campaign. Images deliver information and convey a particular vibe or tone. They can forge emotional connections with consumers that drive engagement and make messages stick.

However, images are sometimes treated as an afterthought in campaigns, and that can get organizations in trouble. Just as it’s highly unethical to plagiarize writing or fail to attribute information to the correct sources, the same is true for images. 

Here are four common mistakes communicators make in using images, and how to avoid them:   

1. Pulling from search engines

Marketers mistakenly believe images downloaded from a popular search engine are safe. If the permissions weren’t there, it wouldn’t have been downloadable, right? Wrong. Before sharing an image with the world—whether in a presentation, an article, a press release or a blog post—communicators must make absolutely sure it is approved for use. Scour images for obvious watermarks, a copyright symbol or a note indicating ownership. You can also search to see whether it has an official copyright listing. 

Imagine a speaker talking about her brand at a big conference. The speaker is polished and charming, her presentation is thoughtful and informative, and then a slide pops up with a watermarked image. That’s blatantly careless, even sloppy. It can undermine communicators’ authority by revealing they took something they weren’t supposed to. 

2. Flouting licenses and permissions

Using images without proper license and warranties comes with potential legal liabilities—even if the images are free to use. If a brand manager uses an image that includes people, those people are probably professional models. The photographer will probably have signed a contract with them called a model release. If those images are disseminated without the proper licenses and permissions, you could be sued for using them.

In 2017, Leah Caldwell sued Chipotle for over $2 billion, claiming the chain had used her image in promotional material without her consent. Years earlier, Caldwell was eating at Chipotle and a photographer took her picture. She refused to sign a release form for use of the images, but Chipotle posted the image inside multiple locations, anyway. Caldwell claimed Chipotle wrongly used her image for “commercial gain and in violation of her reasonable expectation of privacy.” 

A $2 billion lawsuit is dramatic, but such disputes crop up all the time on various scales. To protect your brand from liability, make sure any image agencies or photographers you work with verify the contacts for all photos and the people in them, to ensure you can safely use it.  

3. Trademark infringement 

In addition to people, trademarks can raise a red flag. Using an image with a logo in the background, an emblem on a car’s hood or a famous graffiti mural can result in legal issues, even if they are not the main element of the photo. Adidas, for example, has been known to aggressively defend its trademark and trade dress. Depicting two or four stripes on sporting material can land a brand in court, and three stripes could come with a hefty payout to Adidas. Before using images, have editors scrutinize them carefully for potential problems, as well as for technical or aesthetic concerns. 

4. Social media risks

Social media and sites including Instagram are filled with images, but that doesn’t mean those photos are available for commercial use. 

Remember those model licenses? A common mistake communicators make is to use images that don’t belong to them in promoting anything that could be deemed commercial—the product, the service, even a quick “good morning” to customers. If an image is on a company’s page or a page connected to a business, a license is necessary. Yes, even Instagram influencers can constitute businesses, and resharing images or posts doesn’t get around this point. 

Serban Enache is the CEO and co-founder of Dreamstime.com.

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