When it comes to photos, when in doubt, assume it’s subject to copyright and don’t use it without the appropriate permission. What it comes down to is that if you need to use another person’s image, make sure it fits clearly into one of the protected purposes or seek legal counsel if there is a significant investment of money or time in your project.
Fair use may be an exception allowing you to use copyrighted images, but chances are you’ll be in for a discussion or possibly find your site taken down by your host if the copyright holder disagrees. Unfortunately, there are no significant cases that establish hard-and-fast rules when it comes to fair use and images used on the Internet.
However, photographers and graphic artists often make a living from selling or licensing their work and if we all just poached what we wanted, we’d be circumventing not only the law but also interfering with their right to control how they distribute their images.
Copyright fair use has been fought over when it comes to using words and images in print publications. The Internet, though, is still very much in its infancy when it comes to fair use guidance.
Without bright line rules, we’re each left to interpret laws that were written long before digital communication was ever imagined and did not contemplate the ease of sharing that exists today. While it may be a remote possibility that the average blogger will be sued for copyright infringement relating to an image, bear in mind that you may be the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.”
If you’re considering taking images from large agencies, they have legal teams that do nothing but look for infringing uses. There are inexpensive ways to search for images online, even if you change the file name. And if you’re thinking you’ll just crop the image so you can’t see the copyright notice or other identifying information, think twice about that because the penalty for doing so is very stiff— up to $25,000, plus attorney fees and damages.
There are many resources for free images, whether public domain, licensed creative commons or inexpensive stock images, so you really shouldn’t need to use copyright-protected works for beautifying your site, creating that cool presentation or making a video. But if you really have to have that image, ask first. You’d be surprised at how many people would gladly grant permission for use of their images.
Fair use doesn’t mean fair game, but it’s there to allow for uses that will benefit society and the public good. Don’t be afraid to use images. Use this information to make good decisions and you’re likely to be just fine. Always, though, if in doubt leave it out (or get permission or ask a lawyer).
What do you think? Leave your questions and comments in the box below.
Disclosure: While Sara Hawkins is an attorney, this article is for informational purposes only and is not to be considered legal advice.
*Not intended to be legal advice.