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More than once, we’ve had a client contact us about an issue they’ve encountered with a photo they put on their website.

Usually, they’ve found a photo on Google Images, taken it, and used it as an image for one of their web pages. Not long after, they’re sent an email by the photo’s owner, or a copyright management service requesting they pay a licensing fee.

When it comes to issues like this, people tend to make a lot of assumptions and spread misinformation, so we figured we would take this opportunity to clear the air.

5 Must-Know Facts About Content Use Etiquette

  1. Can you use images you find online?
    Probably not—while you may be able to find images that are available in the public domain, most are protected by copyright by a specific photographer, artist, designer, or company.
  2. What if I provide a source or credit?
    Unfortunately, this still won’t make it OK to use the image. The core issue is that these images have an inherent value that is owned by whoever possesses the copyright. By using the image without purchasing a license, you benefit at the direct expense of the copyright owner.
  3. What if there’s no copyright notice on the image?
    US law does not require the author to provide notice of copyright. The onus is on you to properly research the image to determine whether it is in the public domain or not.
    Today, authors often embed copyright in the source code, making it easy for them to find out if their images are being used without permission.
  4. How much will I have to pay for using an image without a valid license?
    Doing so is a violation of Title 17 U.S.C.S., the Copyright Act of 1976, which carries penalties and damages that can range up to $150,000, before additional expenses and costs.
  5. What if I didn’t design my website?
    As the owner of the website, it is your responsibility to ensure that all images used on it are properly licensed. Make sure your web designer is following legal and best practices when it comes to sourcing your images.

How To Find Out If An Image Is Protected Under Copyright

If you really like a specific image and insist on using it, you will have to obtain a license. You can check if it is copyrighted in a number of ways:

  • Look for an author credit on or near where the photo is posted
  • Check for a watermark directly in the image itself
  • Check for copyright owner information in the image’s metadata:

    • Windows: Right-click the image and look under Properties
    • Mac: Open the image in Preview, click Tools>Show Inspector>EXIF tab
  • Perform a reverse image search in Google

If you still can’t find an author or credit, that does not mean the image is fair game. As mentioned above, authors are not required to provide notice of copyright. Using an image for which you don’t have a license always assumes some degree of risk.

Looking For Legal Stock Images?

The good news is that, since there are such strict laws surrounding the use of copyrighted images, there is an entire industry based on the licensing of stock images. By signing up for one of these services (or hiring a web designer that includes it in their fees), you can access extensive libraries of stock images as needed.

Better Safe Than Sorry

As a rule of thumb, never use an image unless you are absolutely sure it is in the public domain. Doing otherwise risks thousands in fines and potential legal action.

GO Concepts Inc
GO Concepts Inc
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