What to do if You’re Accused of Copyright Infringement

Watch it or lose it - thieves at work by Tristan Schmurr from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Watch it or lose it – thieves at work by Tristan Schmurr from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The owner of a copyright has the exclusive right to control where their work is copied, displayed, and distributed. If they think that someone is using their work without permission, there’s a good chance they’re going to react. They may be passive aggressive and write a blog post about you. They might b direct and send you an email or call you. If they sell their work for a living, they may just send you a bill. They may also hire a lawyer to send a cease and desist letter, a DMCA takedown notice to your webhost, or they may just sue you.

If you are accused of violating someone’s copyright, the first thing you want to do is examine the situation. What are they claiming is on your site or your materials that belongs to them? Some people will tell you that you can use anything you find on the internet as long as you provide and attribution and a link to the original – and that’s just not true. What you may have done is commit infringement and admit it. So look at the image or text in question and try to determine where it came from. If you created it from scratch, there’s a good chance it’s not infringement. If you got it from someone else, you may have a problem.

In most cases, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with your copyright lawyer if you’re accused of committing infringement, especially if the other side contacted you through their lawyer. He/she can examine the situation, explain your options, and help you choose the right course of action for your situation. In most cases, the person who claims you stole their work doesn’t want to sue you. They likely want you to stop using their material, and possibly pay a licensing fee for the time you used it. In many cases you want to respond either as yourself or through your lawyer with what you did or could do to resolve the situation.

There are times where you might want to risk not responding. Some people do this is they think nothing will happen if they ignore the notice from the person claiming you stole their work. Sometimes this is effective. Sometimes it leads the person to escalate and sue you or report your company to a regulatory body that oversees your company. It’s not a decision to make lightly.

So what are the best and worse-case scenarios in these situations? In the best-case scenario, the person making the claim against you is wrong because you haven’t violated their copyright sending a response to that end or ignoring them will resolve the situation. In the worst-case scenario, you’ll be sued (and lose!) for willfully stealing someone’s copyright and sued for $150,000 per image or article you stole, plus the copyright holder’s attorney’s fees.

Legal Side of Blogging Book CoverBecause the penalties can be so high, you want to be careful when you use other people’s content on your website or marketing materials. You need to be sure that you own or have permission to use content created by third parties.

If you need a legal resource on this topic or anything related to the laws that apply to social media, I recommend my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. It covers a lot of the major issues that apply to copyright and the internet. If you want to chat more about this topic, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.

Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Telling the Truth when you get Free Stuff

Our Books Arrive by Jarkko Laine from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Our Books Arrive by Jarkko Laine from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

One of the perks of being a blogger is sometimes you get free stuff. Companies will send you free things with the hopes that you’ll write about it. One of my writing gigs is product reviews for lawyers so I have to use various office gadgets and software and write about it.

If you are lucky enough to get free stuff in the mail or you review products as part of your job, there are some rules you need to know. By federal law, you have to do two things if you do product reviews:

Your review of the product must contain your true opinion about it that is not misleading.

You must disclose when you are compensated for giving your opinion.

This means that you have to be honest about what you think about a product and not feel compelled to say nice things just because you got it for free or paid for the review. And you have to tell the audience that you got a benefit for the review – perhaps so they can be aware of the potential bias. The disclosure doesn’t have to be a big deal – just a “XYZ sent me this product for free and here’s what I think about it.”

If you don’t follow this rule, you could be fined up to $11,000 by the Federal Trade Commission. They can go after the reviewer or the company who sent the product. I suspect they’ll go after who has money to pay the fine.

Legal Side of Blogging Book CoverA company that sends out free products to bloggers or reviewers should include a reminder to their reviewers that they need to comply with this rule. This rule also applies if you’re writing comments on other blogs or websites or writing original content for your own site.

This rule also applies to review sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor. If you’re a Yelper, your must only post accurate reviews and you can only review products and services you’ve used. A company can’t legally tell its employees to post exaggerating positive reviews about the company or fake negative reviews about their competition.

If you need a legal resource on this topic or anything related to the laws that apply to social media, I recommend my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. It covers a lot of the major issues that apply to copyright and the internet. If you want to chat more about this topic, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.

Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

The Real Cost of a Social Media Misstep

Money by Andrew Magill from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Money by Andrew Magill from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I was talking with some non-lawyer entrepreneurs lately, and I asked them what they thought would be the worst case scenario if their company broke the law via their social media, and they both responded that they would have to take responsibility for their mistake, apologize, and do some damage control. While I appreciate that these business owners appeared to have integrity and good intentions, I internally cringed that they both assumed that saying, “I’m sorry,” should be enough to fix a problem.

I want to share some numbers for the costs a business could easily face if they violate a law with their online posts.

Trademark Infringement – Cost of Rebranding
Think about how much time and money you’ve spent selecting the name for your business or product, your logos, your slogans, your domain, and your website. Now, how would you feel if you had to do it all again? That’s what could happen if you select a name for your business or product that’s already been registered by someone else in your industry. In the best case scenario, they’ll send a cease and desist letter and demand that you rebrand. In the worst case scenario, they’ll sue you for infringement, and you could be spending tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and fines.

This is why I suggest companies check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Database for registered trademarks to verify the name or slogan they want to use hasn’t been claimed by someone else.   I’m also an advocate of registering your trademark as soon as you can afford it, so no one can restrict your use of your own name or steal it from you.

Illegal Social Media Policy – at least $10,000
Every company needs a social media policy, but employers need to understand that a federal law called the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) that protect union activities also apply to employees talking about their work – even in public online forums. If you fire an employee for violating the company social media policy and it turns out your policy violates the NLRA, you could be ordered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to pay the ex-employee back wages, damages, and offer them their job back. My friend who works on these cases says if you have to pay the ex-employee $10,000, you got off easy.

Copyright Infringement – $150,000 per Work Copied
Many business owners don’t understand that they can’t use any image they find via a Google Image search. There are even marketing “professionals” who will tell you that you can use any image you find online as long as you give an attribution and a link to the original. Both of these are excellent ways to commit copyright infringement. And photographers are becoming more savvy about protecting their rights so if you use their work they may send you a bill or a lawsuit instead of a cease and desist letter or a takedown notice. In the worst case scenario, you may face a lawsuit for $150,000 per image you used without permission.

Be careful if you outsource your content creation that your contracts clear state that the writer or artist who creates your content also indemnifies you if you are ever accused of copyright infringement because of something they created for your site or posted to your social media.

Defamation – $2,500,000
Defamation generally requires making a false statement about a person to a third party that hurts the person’s reputation. When I do talks about social media horror stories, I talk about a case where a blogger was sued for defamation because of one blog post and was ordered to pay him $2.5 million. 1 blog post. $2.5 million. (The case is currently up on appeal but I don’t think it looks good for her.) This is when little words matter because it’s easy to think you’re stating an opinion but your phrasing creates a statement of a fact – and if it’s a lie, it could be defamatory. Think before you post and check your sources.

ruthcover smallerPlease note, these numbers do not include legal fees you could face in addition to damages if you’re sued because of your social media posts. The legal issues listed above only scratches the surface of what wrongs a person or company can commit online. The good news is most of these problems are preventable with education and diligence. I strongly recommend you stay abreast of what laws apply to your social media postings and developments in this area of law.

If you need a legal resource for laymen on this topic, I recommend my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. It covers a lot of the major issues that apply to blogging and social media. If you want to chat more about this topic, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

How the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) Works

Hueco Tanks Lightening Storm by Dana Le from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Hueco Tanks Lightening Storm by Dana Le from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I got a message from a photographer friend who said a company is using many photographers’ work on their site without permission. He investigated the company’s copyright policy and was astonished that they make people provide six things to get an image removed. He sent me the link. Here’s what they require:

  1. Information reasonably sufficient to permit us to contact the complaining party (e.g., address, telephone number and email address);
  2. A physical or electronic signature of the person authorized to act on behalf of the owner of the copyrighted work(s) that is/are alleged to have been infringed;
  3. An identification of the copyrighted work(s) you claim is/are being infringed or, if multiple copyrighted works at a single online site are covered by a single notification, a representative list of such works at that site;
  4. Identification of the material that is claimed to be infringing or to be the subject of infringing activity, and information reasonably sufficient to permit us to locate the material;
  5. A statement that the complaining party has a good faith belief that use of the material is unauthorized; and
  6. A statement that the information in the notification is accurate, and under penalty of perjury, that the complaining party is authorized to act on behalf of the owner of an exclusive right that is allegedly infringed.

When I saw the list, I smiled. This is how the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) works. When you send a DMCA takedown notice, you have to tell the web host who you are, which of your photos is being used, where they can find the image on the alleged copyright infringer’s site, and you have to promise that you’re telling the truth. If you provide this information, they are required to remove the image from the alleged infringer’s site.

This is what disturbs me about this situation. This company uses many images on its site. As an outsider looking in, it appears that they at least suspect that infringement is happening and their way to dealing with it to remove the infringing images when they’re notified. I would not be surprised to learn that this company outsources their content creation so they wouldn’t know if their use of an image was violating someone’s copyright. I hope they have a policy to fire contractors with a track record of copyright infringement.

Sending a DMCA takedown notice is only one option when a photographer suspects their work is being used without permission. Some photographers opt to send a bill or file a lawsuit against them instead.

If you want a resource that explains the legalities of copyright and social media in plain English, I recommend my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you want to chat more about this topic, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

How to Avoid Being the Next Social Media Horror Story

Be A Social Media Super Hero for your Company - "Super Heros" by 5chw4r7z from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Be A Social Media Super Hero for your Company – “Super Heros” by 5chw4r7z from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I had the pleasure of presenting Social Media Horror Stories (and How to Avoid the Same Fate) at the Arizona Technology Council Lunch and Learn this week.  For those of you who weren’t there, I got to tell the stories of major missteps companies and individuals have committed with their social media activities and how to avoid the same mistakes. In every situation, the problems could have been avoided or mitigated with proper education, forethought, and applying common sense.

This is my recommended follow-up plan for attendees:

Register Your Trademarks
To avoid problems with your competition, register the name of your company, products, blog, logo, and/or tagline with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Without registration, the law only protects your right to use your trademarks in your established geographic market (which can be challenging to discern when your business is 100% online). You don’t want to find yourself in the Burger King situation where your market is limited or the Turner Barr situation where your business is essentially shut down because someone else registered your mark.

Before you launch your next company, product, or marketing campaign, be sure to check the Trademark Office’s database to make sure that someone else doesn’t already have the exclusive rights to use your desired trademark.

Check Your Contracts
If you outsource any of your content creation or marketing activities, review your contracts carefully. Look for information about who owns the social media accounts and any content created on your behalf. Also look for provisions that address potential problems and whether you will be indemnified if you’re sued or get in trouble because of something a third party did on your behalf.

Remember that website terms of service are also contracts. Make sure you understand the implications of using a social media platform or web-based service. Your site may also have terms of service that manage your relationships with your users. Make sure they’ve been written to suit your needs.

Be Careful About Copyrights
When a person owns a copyright in text or an image, they have the exclusive right to control where they work is copied, distributed, and displayed. If you want to use their work, you often need to obtain permission or risk being accused of copyright infringement.  I frequently see people pulling images from search engine results without considering the artist’s rights. Many people think they can use whatever they want as long as they give an attribution and link back to the original, and that’s just not true. If you’re looking for images for your site, consider using Creative Commons. I always use images that come with the license that allows me to modify and commercialize the artist’s work.

When it comes to your own copyrights, decide in advance how you want to react when someone steals your work and plan accordingly.

Check Your Social Media Policy
I’m an advocate for the idea that companies should generally leave their employees alone when they’re on their own time, including what they do on social media. However, I’m also a huge proponent of the idea that every company needs a social media policy. Employees need to understand what their dos and don’ts are when it comes to their personal profiles and blogs, and employers need to understand that their social media policy needs to comply with the National Labor Relations Act. If your policy prohibits employees from saying anything damaging about the company online, it’s likely illegal and if you fire someone for violating an illegal policy, you could easily face tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and damages. This is an area of law that is still developing, so please have  lawyer help you write your policy so it complies with the law.

Review Your Crisis Response Plan
For most companies, the question isn’t if it will face a crisis, but when. Every company should have plans in place for dealing with expected problems, including pre-writing content for the media and social media, so what when an problem occurs, everyone knows what their role and the protocol that everyone will be following. When you’re having your planning sessions, it’s a good idea to have your legal counsel present to assist from a legal perspective.

If you want a resource for you or your staff regarding the legalities of social media, please check out my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you’re interested in guerilla marketing, my book on Flash Mob Law will be available on Amazon in June 2014.

If you want to talk more about social media law, you can connected with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

New Developments in the Blogger-Media Debate

Kelli Johnson Orioles Media Pass by Keith Allison from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Kelli Johnson Orioles Media Pass by Keith Allison from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The debate over whether bloggers are journalists or members of the media continues. This has been an issue since the inception of blogging and it’s probably going to be an ongoing issue and here’s why – most laws that apply to journalists (like the shield laws) are state-level laws. They’re generally similar but it comes down to how each law was written to determine whether bloggers are journalists in a specific situation. And unless a state revises its laws to specifically address whether bloggers can be journalists, we have to wait until there’s a problem and the blogger who claims to be protected the same as a journalist challenges a situation where they’ve been denied that right.

So far, the courts in California and New Hampshire have said that bloggers can be journalists under those states’ shield laws and the courts in Oregon and Illinois have said that they’re not based on how those states’ laws are worded and the specifics of those cases. I believe that bloggers should be treated the same as journalists under the law when the bloggers are engaged in the same activities. With so many publications becoming only available in digital formats and many legit respected niche blogs being created, it would be foolish to try to categorize as a journalist or a blogger when in essence it’s their activities that matter more than name of the outlet where their work appears.

Here are some recent developments in the blogger/journalist debate:

Florida
Florida’s defamation law says you must give a media outlet five days’ notice before filing a defamation lawsuit against them. Florida businessman Christopher Comins sued blogger Matthew Frederick VanVoorhis for defamation and lost because VanVoorhis successfully argued that blogs are part of the media and therefore the case had to be thrown out because Comins failed to give him five days’ notice about the lawsuit.

I was impressed by how well the court articulated the role of bloggers in news reporting and public commentary: “The impact of blogs has been so great that even terms traditionally well defined and understood in journalism are changing as journalists increasingly employ the tools and techniques of bloggers – and vice versa.”

I was also pleased to see that the court added that not all blogs and bloggers are protected under the law in question. I think that would be overreaching. You can read the full case here. Thanks for posting it Techdirt.

U.S. Senate
SCOTUSblog is generally regarded as a go-to place for news from the U.S. Supreme Court. They’re the main blog I follow via Twitter for updates on rulings. (Did I mention they’ve won a Peabody Award for excellence in electronic media?) Lyle Denniston writes for SCOTUSblog and had a press pass for the Senate Press Gallery. Historically the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes those credentials. However, they said they’d have to review their credentialing policy when he tried to use it at the Supreme Court. (SCOTUSblog writers can get in to Supreme Court proceedings by requesting a public seat.)

Denniston was recently informed that his press pass for the Senate Press Gallery would not be renewed. Attorney Tom Goldstein, founder of SCOTUSblog, said he intends to appeal the decision, and if it’s denied, he’s going to file a lawsuit.

I hope SCOTUSblog doesn’t have to litigate this issue but I’m glad they’re willing to. When I first read this story, my reaction was they were being denied a press pass because someone at the Senate or the Supreme Court doesn’t like them and is trying to use semantics to keep them out. This is going to be a fun situation to watch and an issue worth keeping an eye on in general.

If you want to know more about blogger rights, I strongly recommend two of my books:

If you want to talk more about this topic, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. Please subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter and visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Hat tip to Kevin O’Keefe.

U.S. Copyright Office is Raising its Filing Fees on May 1, 2014

Burning Nature by Vinoth Chandar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Burning Nature by Vinoth Chandar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Last week, the U.S. Copyright Office announced that it is raising its fees to register your work. Effective May 1, 2014, the cost to register a single work or a collection of works using their online system will go up from $35.00 to $55.00 per application. For those of you who are old school and prefer to register your work by mail, the fee will go up from $65 to $85.

So if you have projects that you were planning on registering with the Copyright Office, now would be a really good time to get them done.  You only have to get your application in before May 1st; it may take the Copyright office until after May 1st to process it.

There is one piece of good news in the fee hike announcement. The U.S. Copyright made an exception for individuals who are registering single works that are not “works made for hire.” If you are a photographer, writer, or some other artist and you want to register you works individually, your filing fee will remain at $35 per application.

I had a question about this exception because I know many artists who create a lot of works that are not works made for hire, but they do it under an LLC for liability and tax purposes.  I called the Copyright Office and they confirmed that you only qualify for the $35 fee if you register as an individual person. If you register your work under your business name, you have to pay $55 per application, even if you are the only person in the business.

Heart in Pages by Vincent Lock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Heart in Pages by Vincent Lock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The only things that are changing on May 1st are the Copyright Office’s fees. The rest of the copyright laws have remained the same.

To qualify for a copyright, you need an original work of authorship that is fixed in any tangible medium. When you have a copyright, you have the exclusive right to control where your work is copied, distributed, displayed, performed, and what derivative works can be made from it. You get these rights the moment your work is created, even if you never register it with the Copyright Office and even if you don’t put a copyright notice on your work – i.e. “© [Copyright Owner’s Name] [Year].”  If you register your work, your registration provides the presumption of ownership and validity of your copyright rights. If you ever want to sue for copyright infringement when someone steals your work, you must register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office first.

If you want to talk more about copyright, copyright registration, or intellectual property strategy, connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. If you post your original work online, I strongly recommend you check out the many chapters on copyrights in my books:

Please subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter and visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Legal Issues if you Outsource your Blog Content

Content Writer by Ritesh Nayak from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Content Writer by Ritesh Nayak from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I don’t believe in outsourcing my blog content, but I understand that some people do because they’re busy, or they’re afraid they’re not a good writer, or they’re not dedicated to maintaining their site. Whatever the reason, it happens. If you fall into this boat, there are some legal ramifications you need to be aware of and plan for.

Regardless of who you use to write your blog material, you should review every post before it goes up to ensure that the content is accurate, especially if you work in a field where misstatements can happen and readers could be harmed if they rely on your blog’s information.

Copyright
If you outsource your blog to a third party, your content creator owns the copyright in whatever they create for you unless you have a contract that states otherwise. Without this contract, they own everything and, at most, you have an implied license to use it on your site. If you want to repurpose a blog post, you have to get your writer’s permission; otherwise, you could commit copyright infringement by reusing the material from your own site.

Indemnification
When your writer creates a post, you often do not know what source material they used or where they got the images for each post. (Yes, every blog post needs an image.) There is always a risk that your writer will rip off someone else’s verbiage or image without your knowledge.

If you do not review each post before it is released on your site, there is a risk that your writer could post something defamatory or harmful to another person. The alleged victim in that case might sue you for damages because they were injured because of your website. To avoid this problem, you can protect yourself with an indemnification clause that holds the blogger responsible for the damage they cause or at least requires them to a pay your attorneys’ fees and/or damages assessed against you.

Clear Contracts
If you work with a third party content creator, you want a clear contract that explains all the pertinent aspects of your relationship – what they will create for you, deadlines, who is responsible for website problems, if they’re allowed to write similar content for others, how you’re going to resolve problems, who will own the copyright, and if the writer can use posts as work samples if they assign the copyright to you.

I love contracts. If the term “contract” is a turn-off for you, think of it as a relationship management document. All it is a document that lays out how your relationship is going to work. I made a video this week about how awesome contracts are.

When you work with third party content creators, not having a contract is not an option. If you want to chat more contracts for your content creators, connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also check out my books about the legalities of blogging:

Please subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter and visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

New Book – The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers

The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers

The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers

Having a blog is still awesome. Getting in trouble because of your block isn’t. When you’re lawyer, staying out of trouble when you have a blog is a little more complicated.

I became interested in the legalities of blogging when I started my personal blog, The Undeniable Ruth, in 2010. I have a lot of friends who are outspoken online and I wanted to know how far we could push the envelope before one of us crossed the line. That became a blog series, which inspired a paper for my Cyberspace Law class, and became the basis of my first book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. I tried to write as a blogger for other bloggers – in English instead of legalese. I tried to give as many straight answers as possible in an arena where the law hasn’t kept up with technology.

When I signed on to write The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers, I wanted to address all the common legal questions any blogger would have and also address some issues that are specific to the legal profession.  I added sections about the type of disclaimer every legal blogger should have on their site and under what circumstances lawyers can blog about their own cases. Lawyers also have to be mindful of their state’s ethical rules about lawyer advertising. This shouldn’t be that big of an issue because if your blog constitute advertising, you’re probably doing it wrong.  The book also includes practical advice on how to respond to people who leave comments on your site that ask for legal advice – despite the fact that your disclaimer clearly states that anyone in that situation should schedule a consult with a lawyer in their community.

I also added three appendices that list the state and federal laws that apply to blogging, online resources related to the legalities of blogging, and a list of recommended books about blogging and social media marketing.

One of my favorite parts of this book is the afterward written by anonymous legal blogger The Namby Pamby – a man who has personally experience blogging about his cases with the added burden of keeping his identity a secret. His blog is hilarious, and I loved hearing his take on my work.

After the book came out, I had the pleasure of talking about the book on the JD Blogger Podcast. Host John Skiba said that he liked the book can be used as a resource for lawyers with cases that are related to the internet because it’s filled with citations to the applicable cases and laws.

If you want your own copy, The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers is available through the American Bar Association.

If you want to chat more about the legalities of blogging, you can connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Be Leery of Free Image Sites: You May Inadvertently Commit Copyright Infringement

Palm Sunset by Lawrence Rayner from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Palm Sunset by Lawrence Rayner from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I cringe every time I hear people says they use Google Images to find pictures for their websites because I know most of them are using anything they find in the search results without adjusting the settings to only show images that give them permission to use them. And I love it when people, especially entrepreneurs, use Creative Commons, seek out other sources for free images, or purchase a license to use images from iStock. Unfortunately, there are times when business owners think they are doing everything right, and they don’t realize they’re not until they’re threatened with legal action.

I have heard about a few situations over the years when someone has stolen images from a photographer and made their work available for free without the artist’s permission. Sometimes the person who steals the original image cuts off the photographer’s watermark or signature before posting them online. These photo thieves may post these images on their own site as free images or wallpaper. You might download this work and use it on your site, thinking that you are acting within the limits of the law.

When the photographer realizes that their work has been stolen, they’ll probably be angry – and they might send letters than demand payment or threaten legal action to every site where their work has appeared without their permission. And rightfully so – as the copyright holder, they have exclusive right to control where their work is copied and distributed. The fact that you didn’t know that you were doing anything wrong will not absolve you. If you’ve used an image where the watermark or other copyright notice was removed, they could accuse you of committing copyright infringement (punishable by up to $150K in statutory damages per violation) and removing the copyright management information to facilitate the infringement (punishable by up to an additional $25K per violation).

So what do you do if you receive one of these demand letters? Contact a copyright lawyer immediately. You want to verify that the claim is legitimate and strategically plan your response. If the claim is legit, the artist likely wants you to pay their licensing fee and/or stop using their image. It’s probably best to let your lawyer respond on your behalf but if you choose to respond to the letter yourself, it’s a good idea to have your lawyer at least review your response before you send it to make sure that it’s thoughtful and reasonable.

What should you do to avoid this type of problem in the first place? Be leery of free wallpaper sites. I have more faith in images I find through Creative Commons – though it is possible that someone could steal another’s image and make it available with a Creative Commons license. You can always run the image you want to run the image through the Google Image search engine to see where else it is being used online. That may help you determine if the image might be stolen. If there ever is an image that you want to use on your site and you’re unsure if you have permission to use it, explicitly ask the artist for their permission.

If you want to learn more about copyright issues on the internet, please check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. It has several chapters dedicated to copyright. You can connected with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.