Copyright on the Web

This article was originally written for ArrowQuick Solutions, a technology consultancy for small businesses.

Posted on February 17, 2010

Like books and music, images are a creative work. When an artist creates an illustration or takes a photo, the resulting image is protected by copyright law. This means that the artist has the exclusive right to copy and distribute the image.

Your website and print publications probably have photos of your products or employees that you took yourself, but often there are stock photos and other graphics as well. Surveys show that many people don’t realize that these images are covered by copyright, or that they are confused about how the images can be re-used.

When you’re updating your site, such as adding a blog post or a new page, it’s tempting to do a Google search to find relevant pictures. Need a photo of a sales rep? Easy — go to Google Images, search for  “sales call“, and find something you like, right?

Unfortunately, that’s wrong. Most likely the picture that you choose is an original work or is licensed only for that website. In other words, you don’t have permission to use it. Remember “plagiarism” from school? It’s the same idea; you are basically stealing someone else’s work.

The big stock photo agencies have been aggressively pursuing infractions. It’s fairly easy for these companies to track down sites that are using their images and then compare them against their customer records. If you aren’t on their list, then you’ll typically get an official letter demanding you remove the images or purchase a license for them. If the issue is not settled, then you can expect a lawsuit.

Even professional graphic designers and marketers have been caught. Sometimes it’s just ignorance of the law. Sometimes it’s laziness or an oversight during the rush to complete a job. Whatever the situation, it’s a mistake you want to avoid.

How To Get Images Legally

Tiger biting a soccer ball.

Flickr has a lot of photos available for commercial use, like this one. Check their Advanced Search page.

Graphic designers often purchase from stock photo libraries, which allow them to use the stock pictures on your site. This permission given by the stock photo agency is called licensing. Usually you’ll want to have royalty-free images, which means they have only a one-time cost.

You’ll want to be sure that all in-house designers and content creators are aware of copyright and follow the image licenses. Having an account with stock photo agencies (such as provides them a go-to source. There are also sites that provide free images for commercial use. (“Commercial use” is key. Some creators allow you to use their images for free, but only for personal use.)

If you are outsourcing work, whether it is for web or print publications, be sure to use a trusted, reputable agency. If the publication is part of large project, be sure that the contract stipulates that the agency is responsible for obtaining licenses for the images that they use. Otherwise, you may be held responsible for work that you outsourced but didn’t directly create.

More Info

Tiger photo courtesy Tambako the Jaguar.

Disclaimer: Copyright, like all laws, is subject to interpretation. I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. Consult a lawyer for your particular situation.

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