5 crucial rules for using online images

That ideal photo or illustration is a godsend—but only if you follow whatever permission protocol the owner has specified. Otherwise, it could cost you big bucks.


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 owner.

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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