Copyright Infringement

Did you receive a letter from a lawyer, or, heaven forbid, Getty Images, stating that you used an image without permission?  Does that letter also demand an alarming amount of money for this transgression?  “But I didn’t know it was a problem and not very many people saw it.”  Unfortunately, those are not valid excuses.  The law provides very strong protections for the creators of works against others using them for profit.  Now that Google has the ability to search for images, it’s easier than ever to get busted for using an image without permission.

Here are some common myths:

If the image appears in a Google search, it’s free to use.  

You must get written permission from the owner of the rights to the image to use it yourself.  That’s why it’s better to go through a stock photography service like istockphoto or Bigstock because, with the purchase of the image, you receive proof of the license to use it.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, under “fair use”, but if you’re operating a for-profit business, chances are good these exceptions don’t apply to you.

I shouldn’t have to pay because only a few people saw it, and I can prove it.

The issue isn’t how many people saw the image; it’s that you used it without permission.  That’s the point at which you become liable for damages.

I took the image down, so I can just ignore the letter.

See comment above.  You’ll have to remove the image; that’s a given.  However, the fact that it was up at all means you were infringing on someone else’s copyright and taking the image down doesn’t unring that bell.

I’m just a little guy; they aren’t going to come after me.

You’d be surprised at the lengths attorneys will go to recover money for copyright infringement.  Many law firms have this process down to a science with templates and even dedicated online portals through which you can pay your settlement.  Getty Images is highly aggressive in policing its copyrights and is not persuaded by any measure of sob story you might be able to tell.

What to do?

Make sure you have the right to use images and content on your website.  To be safe, create your own so that the rights are automatically vested in you.

Make sure, if you hire someone to design your website or marketing collateral, that they get the rights to use images and content, or that they hold you harmless if they infringe.

If you do get a demand letter and don’t have a valid defense, offer a settlement, but get a written release of claims before sending any money.

Don’t be a copycat!