Watch It! That “Free” Image Could Cost You


This is a guest post courtesy of Melissa regarding copyright infringement and your blog images.

Definitely was an eye-opening read for me, how about you?

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below, I’d love to hear them.

As a blogger, I often quickly grab an image from Google images to use in a post without thinking much of it.

As long as you credit your source and the image isn’t copyrighted, you’re good to go, right?

Maybe not.

Blogger and national bestselling author Roni Loren recently wrote about the harrowing experience of being sued for posting a picture on her blog without realizing her action violated a copyright.

This is something that many, many bloggers do on a daily basis without ever seriously considering the ethical implications or legal consequences. There is also a terrible flood of misinformation on the Internet about how copyright laws function in these situations, and as bloggers, we need to have the real facts to protect ourselves.

And besides that, as Loren so astutely points out, writers really ought to have enough respect for the concept of intellectual property to do the right thing once they understand the rules.

What is Copyright Infringement?

Copyright infringement is an important and often misunderstood issue bloggers and other online content creators need to know about, as Loren’s legal fiasco makes clear.

Though most bloggers don’t realize it, indiscriminately using images you find on Google, Tumblr and Pinterest on your blog often violates copyrights, and when you violate someone’s copyright, that person can sue you.

Many bloggers assume that practices such as crediting the source of a photograph or taking it down when asked will protect them, but Loren’s experience and copyright law both say otherwise.

In fact, it’s illegal to do almost anything with a copyrighted image besides look at it, unless you have written permission.

How to Protect Yourself

It’s important to note that I am not a lawyer, and the intent of this post is not to provide authoritative legal advice. If you want definitive legal advice, you should do further research or consult a copyright lawyer.

However, these basic guidelines will hopefully help you to steer clear of copyright infringement:

  • If you know that a photograph is copyrighted, do not use it in any fashion without permission.
  • Do not use any photograph unless you know whether it is copyrighted, whether it is under the creative commons license or whether it is in the public domain. Never assume.
  • Contrary to popular belief, posting a disclaimer on your website does not protect you in any way from copyright law. This is the legal equivalent of claiming you were just borrowing that stranger’s car you hot-wired–for real.
  • It does not matter whose computer the photograph is stored on. If it appears on your website, it appears on your website.
  • Taking a photograph down when asked to does not protect you from the consequences of copyright infringement — although if you’re lucky, it may discourage the image’s owner from pursuing legal recourse.
  • Whether or not you made any money or tried to make any money by infringing on someone else’s copyright is irrelevant. You’re breaking the law either way. So even if you don’t make any money from your blog, you’re still on the hook.

So What Images Can I Use?

So, once you’ve decided to steer clear of copyright infringement (good choice), where will you find the images to spice up all those prosaic blog posts? Luckily, there are several sources of images that you can legally reproduce:

  • Creative Commons is one great place you can search for images that are free and legal to use. However, images that are shared under the creative commons license may still have restrictions on their use that you need to understand when you use them (usually you just have to credit the creator and link to their site).
  • The Library of Congress is also a good place to look for images which are either in the public domain or which you can use for a small one-time fee.
  • You can always take photos yourself, which ensures that nobody (except maybe you) owns the copyright.
  • If you can identify an image’s owner and get permission from him or her to use the photograph, then and only then is it legal to use a copyrighted image. On the Internet, the trickiest part might be correctly identifying and contacting the owner, but it can be done. If the photograph is not particularly famous or valuable, it may be relatively cheap and easy to get permission to use it. But the process can also be time consuming and expensive, and you don’t know which way it will go until it’s done.

Why is This Such a Big Deal?

For some bloggers, copyright laws may seem like a rather Kafka-esque way of governing the kitten memes you’ve been happily posting on Tumblr for years.

And when it comes to kitten memes, it’s hard to know how seriously to take intellectual property laws. But for fine art photographers, photojournalists and other professionals who work in visual media, copyright laws literally mean the difference between success and starvation.

Maintaining a measure of control over their intellectual property is often the only way that these image-creators can survive and do the work that they do — and thus the only way that you have any images to post on your blog.

So there are two takeaways from all this: 1) Protect yourself from lawsuits; 2) Be conscious of how your actions affect other peoples’ art and property. As long as you keep these two principles in mind while you’re blogging, you should be able to live a long, happy and copyright-lawyer-free life.

That’s all folks. End of the line. Last road to Tucson. It’s over and the fat lady sang. OK more like warbled. Anyhoo, feel free to comment and share this post if you found it useful. 😉

Image Credit

About the author

Melissa Woodson

Melissa Woodson is the community manager for @WashULaw, a premier Masters of Law program offered through Washington University in St. Louis as well as a contributor to the LLM guide. In her spare time, she enjoys running, cooking, and making half-baked attempts at training her dog.

By Melissa Woodson

Melissa Woodson

Melissa Woodson is the community manager for @WashULaw, a premier Masters of Law program offered through Washington University in St. Louis as well as a contributor to the LLM guide. In her spare time, she enjoys running, cooking, and making half-baked attempts at training her dog.

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