See That Image Online? It’s Probably Stolen.

Louise Guy
May 17, 2016

Presently, we reside in a highly visual age: there are over 4.77 billion camera phones globally with almost 266 million of them in American pockets and purses. We’re aware of the power wielded by camera-savvy Insta-stars and lifestyle bloggers, and it’s no secret that the general public gravitates toward sites with appealing visual content.

Snapchat, Vimeo, Vine and Instagram were founded on the allure of images and video content. We the people responded, and now apps like these are the most used and influential ones on the market. This isn’t a secret, and in reaction the majority of websites online reflect our affinity to visual media.

So let me ask you this: Where are you getting your website’s images?

Photo: Pixabay

Unless you’re a part of the formerly mentioned InstaPack or a professionally trained camera handler, you’re probably just a goober with an iPhone like me. Regardless of my own abilities in the photography department (or lack thereof), I acknowledge the necessity of crisp, bright, relevant and eye-catching photography in any blog post or news report. Unfortunately relying on myself to produce these much-needed images is rarely an option.

At the intersection of “needing images” and “not being able to take them yourself” is a little fine print known as copyright law. While copyright law applies to all manner of media, in the case of imagery it stipulates that any used without permission are being used illegally. Logos, pictures of pop stars, private and personal photography are all protected under the umbrella of “if-it’s-not-yours-you-can’t-use-it,” and for those of us who rely on third-party sources for content, we’re treading in dangerous waters.

The Fine Line

First off, if you’re just using Google Images unfettered, there’s a very good chance you’re using someone else’s stuff illegally.

Keep in mind most of Google Images’ photos are pulled from the body content of active websites, meaning paid-for and privately generated images are very much in the mix. In order to find imagery that is truly free to use, you’ve got to specifically filter out images that are protected. Google Images’ Search Tools function allows for this, and a number of websites offering free images have collections of decent stock photos.

One exception to this rule is the notion of Fair Use media, or the reproduction of a copyright-protected image made legal by context. The rule exists so that editorial content is not hindered by the law if its intentions are to educate the public; it allows you to reference Company X’s new product that you’re reviewing with their otherwise-copyrighted promotional images, or to include short clips or quotes from a published movie or novel review and better communicate with your audience.

You’re also allowed to cite Fair Use when using copyrighted images in a parody, which is protected under free speech although the rules here are a little more precise. To be allowed to use, say, a copyrighted picture of Donald Trump and his “hair” in a publication, the final product must be making fun of the subject of the image. As opposed to Satire, which simply critiques aspects of society and/or humanity as a whole, a parody must poke fun at the subject or symbolic subject of the copyrighted material.

Photo: Open Rights Group / Flickr

An important part of Fair Use media is the objective of the publication: to apply it must be used strictly for the purposes of commentary, criticism or parody.  Images used in publication with the purpose of advertising or any commercial engagement are not considered fair use, and can(will) be flagged as copyright infringement. Even if you’re using an image in your ad to “critique” your competitors, the resulting publication’s goal is to sell something to the public and will therefore not be considered a fair use of media.

Finally, to wrap up all of your now-legal images, giving credit to the original artist in extremely important. Sites like Flickr and DeviantArt are great resources for discovering little-known artists and selectively-protected media, and giving them recognition is not only the respectable thing to do it’s also required by law.

If You Have Any Type of Digital Footprint, You Should Care

The digital revolution and our push for a more visually-immersive internet experience has given way to companies whose sole purpose is to find people using their images illegally and slap you with a fine of between $500 and $7,000. These firms generally bide their time until a website gets popular, and then you’ll get a nasty email demanding compensation for the X illegal views your site has generated.

In addition to any fines or compensation, the lawyers suing for damage will often tack on any lawyer’s expenses associated with the case they have filed against you. Yes, you read that correctly: if you get caught infringing you will be liable for the images you used illegally AND the plaintiff’s lawyer fees. To put these charges into perspective, a $300 fine could come with a $2,500 charge on top for the lawyer’s hourly expenses.

Some statistics spitball that around 85 percent of all images used online are done so illegally, and as the applications for visual material expands so too will the organizations policing them. These cases are typically very easy to prove, and usually only require proof that you used the image, in the past or in the present, without the authority to do so.

The good news is that there are a ton of really great free image sites (Wikimedia, Pexels), along with countless artist communities ( Flickr, DeviantArt) that license their images for editorial purposes. There’s also no real reason to worry about the quality of media available while working within these parameters, as there are a lot of high quality sources available from reputed sources online.

Remember: whether you’re a photographer extraordinaire or just some hack with internet access, the laws of copyright infringement do not discriminate. So check out your site, do a little (or a lot of) digging, and make sure to give credit where credit is due.