Blog Post

How You're Breaking Copyright Laws and Don't Even Know It


As a marketing agency director with some graphic design background, I honestly cannot count how many times I’ve had clients and staff share their intentions with me to use images they've found somewhere online. There are a lot of great paid stock image sites out there as well as a number of free ones. The problem usually stems from a lack of understanding about basic copyright laws surrounding images in marketing and commercial use. The unfamiliarity with the way copyright laws apply to image usage can lead to big problems down the road, and without a firm understanding of some fundamental concepts surrounding copyright, there is a likely chance you’ll end up breaking the law. To help you avoid costly mistakes in your own business, I’ve put together a few real-world examples of seemingly innocent copyright mistakes to illustrate how easy it can be to infringe on copyrights without even knowing it. My goal is to help you avoid similar situations from happening in your own business.

Three Lessons From Real-Life Examples to Learn From While Using Images Online

#1. You Know What They Say About Assuming?

Let me share a “fun” example of my own to see if I can spark some feelings of panic about ignoring copyright laws. A while back, a very long-standing client of ours came to us with a copyright violation notice and payment request from a company that probably exists solely from the profits gained from tracking down copyright violators. I won’t mention the company by name, but the way they make money is by partnering with copyright holders to help protect their work and then receive a percentage of any fees they collect from violators they track down. Photographers can partner with a company like this so they can continually scour the internet (using methods many people have no idea exist such as reverse image lookup, etc.) When they find a violation, they thoroughly document proof of copyright infringement and send out a takedown request as well as an invoice for what they determine the violation to be worth. In this case, the copyright company wanted to charge our client $1,100 for use of an image which was initially priced at only $95 by the creator.

Now, if you’re thinking “I’m not the one adding images to my website; there’s nothing to worry about,” let me enlighten you with some details of this situation which may make you want to reevaluate your position. This was not an intentional use of copyright infringement where either party just grabbed some random image off the internet. Our client grabbed some images as examples of what we could use but assumed we would replace them. We were only posting a blog using the image and optimizing it, so we assumed they had already purchased the images (which they had done before) for this blog. But you know what they say about assumptions? Well, in this case, I felt like it mostly made an ass out of me. To make a very time-consuming, costly, long story much shorter, we ended up negotiating the requested payment down to an $800 payment. I’m no lawyer, but legally speaking, I think we could’ve washed our hands of it because it was on our client’s website, not ours. However, that would have been unwise for us to do with such a long-standing client with whom we had built a great relationship. So instead, we spent many hours combing through the client’s site to ensure something like this would not come up again. We even double-checked older imagery to ensure something similar hadn’t happened elsewhere.

After years of adding content to a website, if you’re not documenting the origin of every image as you go, this becomes extremely time-consuming very quickly when you have to go back and do it retroactively. We’ve now learned that it makes sense to make detailed documentation from the outset, such as where the image came from, who provided it, the date, etc. Redoing work equates to “fun” times, sure, but it’s also necessary and worthwhile to ensure client relationships do not sour.

Situations like the one above are not isolated incidents. While researching the topic, I interviewed several intellectual property and copyright lawyers to see what other type of crazy situations they’d seen related to copyright infringement. I got quite a bit of interesting feedback, advice and answers to my questions. I’ve previously written much more regarding this valuable input I received, but I’ll also share two more examples from intellectual property lawyers below as I believe they illustrate the kind of issues which arise from common misconceptions related to online image use.

In case you’re not convinced yet about the importance of understanding how copyright laws apply to marketing and commercial image use, here are a couple more cringe-worthy examples from copyright attorneys that will make you rethink the way you use images from the web:

#2: “Free” Doesn’t Always Actually Mean “Free”

Ruth Carter, owner of Carter Law Firm had this example to share: “A client found an image on a 'free images' website, and it turned out that the image that my client thought was free to use was stolen from the copyright holder. The client received a letter from the copyright holder demanding a four-figure payment, and they had to try to negotiate a lower number.”

This last example is really one to think about. You have to ask yourself, “how easy would it be for the same thing to happen again?”. It’s probably worth a quick Google search to see if the free image you intend to use is also being offered as purchasable photography on stock sites, because if it is, that’s a strong indication that you may not really be in the clear if you use it without purchasing the rights to do so. You can search for other instances of an image by doing a reverse image search. To do this, you’ll first need to search for something on Google (as the homepage doesn’t offer the ability until you’ve entered a search query). Click on the camera icon:

Then upload the image you wish to search for:

Now you’re going to search through the results it gives you. What you’re looking for here are clues that this image is for sale on stock photography websites Like Getty Images, iStock, Shutterstock, Dreamstime, etc. This can take a little time to sort through, but it’s worth the investment to help you avoid wasting much more time if a copyright issue were to arise.

#3. Royalty Free Can Come With Caveats

Mark Hubert of Mark Hubert PC shared the following example: “I had a client who was using a logo he obtained from the internet on a site that advertised 'royalty free images.' He downloaded the image via screenshot without going through the remainder of the download process on the site itself. He read no further. Unfortunately, while it was true that they were 'royalty free images,' this was only because there was a one time purchase requirement. Thus the no royalty line. Needless to say, using image scanning software, the website owners found his image months later and you can guess the rest. $$$$”

Make sure you find and read the correct license terms and conditions which apply to the image you intend to use on whatever site you’re using to acquire images. Be sure you understand those terms. Many licenses that grant commercial and royalty free image use still come with limitations to those terms. Some have caps on how many times the image can be viewed or what type of media they can be used with. For example, some stock photography site’s terms and conditions may indicate that images used in some printed materials are subject to somewhat different terms than if that same image was being used on a business’s website.

If You Do End Up in a Bind, Do Your Due Diligence

Now a final few words to the wise: If you end up in a situation involving copyright issues and have someone demanding payment, do your due diligence and make sure they are indeed authorized to represent the copyright holder (or are the holder themselves). Make sure you understand whether you actually are in violation of copyright or not because there’s a number of scams and unscrupulous behavior related to these type of claims. For the best advice pertaining to copyright issues, hire an intellectual property lawyer as they will be able to help you more than anyone else can.

Ryan Amen is The Director of Client Success at Nifty Marketing. After spending the last 15+ years working in various aspects of marketing, he’s still as passionate about helping business grow & succeed as he was when he started. Connect with Ryan on LinkedIn or Twitter.