Copyright Abuse Of Photography Is Serious Business

by Paul M. Ruden

The internet has given rise to a dangerous belief that information published on web sites is free for anyone to take. People often think they are at liberty to copy and use anything they find through search engines—to which access also seems “free.” That idea is an illusion that could prove costly.

There are two main types of misuse: using text and copying photographs. These days most web sites have language somewhere on them that claims copyright protection for the content on the site. This means that the owner is asserting an exclusive right to the material, both text and pictures. The absence of such claims is not, however, a license to steal.

Online text should be viewed the same way as the text in a hard-cover book you might buy in a store; taking it for your own commercial use without permission is forbidden. It is not acceptable to copy text and use it on your own web site or in a brochure—and if you do, the financial consequences can be severe. Normally quoting from a press release, with attribution, is acceptable, but you want to be sure you don’t leave outdated material on your web site.

If you want to share an article, use the headline and then link to the article or paraphrase what it says, giving credit to the publication. Generally, it is unwise to simply take text wholesale and plant it on your web site.

More common than text abuse are cases involving photographs copied from one web site and inserted into another. You should be aware that the major stock photography operators use “robotic” trolling software that can actually detect the similarities between the photos they own and those they find on internet sites. This can quickly lead to a “cease-and-desist” letter from the copyright holder and a demand for damages. The damages part may be negotiable, but not necessarily. In any case the need to deal with such issues is disruptive of your attention and your business.

There are a few simple ways to avoid these problems. First, take and use your own photos. Be sure to keep a record of when the shots were taken and by whom. If possible, capture the “meta data” from the camera that identifies the particular photograph and distinguishes it from others that may appear similar or even identical to the naked eye. Alternatively, buy the necessary rights to photos from a stock photography company, of which there are many. Examples of some of the major ones are, and You should be safe if you have purchased rights from these types of stock companies. There are, however, several variations in the rights you can buy, so be sure the rights you buy match the use to which you will put the photo. I have also seen a case where two stock companies claimed to own the identical photograph. It is important to keep good records of what you have purchased in case you are challenged.

Some web sites offer “free” photos; a list can be found at Once again, be sure to heed the warnings about restrictions on the uses to which such photos can be put. “Free” does not always mean “free.” Other options in the “free” category are CVBs and suppliers, which may be happy to share their high-quality shots with appropriate attribution.

A third option is to approach the owner of the web site containing the desired photo and ask for permission to use it. If you are approaching a competitor, this is not likely to be fruitful. Worse yet, the rights of the web site to the photo may be in question if the user does not have the right to license its reuse. The complication of this approach suggest it is not worth pursuing.

You are almost certainly responsible for the publication of protected material even if it is “produced” by a professional web site developer. Most developers understand the limitations on using photos belonging to others, but the owners of the rights may not be sympathetic to your claim that you were not aware that your developer had improperly copied a photo for your site. Your agreement with your web developer should clearly state that the developer will abide by all copyright restrictions and take responsibility for misuse.

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