Using readily-available internet images can cost your business if you have not sought permission

Posted on Jul 1, 2014   |   Categories: Commercial & Business Law, Intellectual Property

You found the perfect image online to use on your blog, or on your next social media post, but stop before you use it – it may cost you if you don’t have permission to use it.

It’s so easy to pull an image off the internet, and everyone else does it, right? Copyright abuse, particularly of images, has become so commonplace that many people wrongly assume that they have automatic rights to reuse someone else’s image simply because it is available on the internet, and that penalties for copyright abuse won’t affect them.

Remember that as easy as it is to pull an image off the web, it is also very easy for photographers, artists and designers to use the internet to see where their images are being used.

Even the experts make mistakes. Recently, a US-based large content marketing firm, Ragan Communications, published an article admitting their own oversight: “How using Google Images can cost you $8,000”.

Ragan wrote the article as an example to all business owners and bloggers; if a company like Ragan, with self-described “obnoxiously high editorial standards” can fall foul of copyright infringement laws (as they discovered when they received a letter from an attorney three months after publishing a minor blog on a client’s site), then so can you.

Alongside the increasing abuse of copyrighted images is an increase in artists policing their copyright via lawyers specialising in intellectual property and copyright. Therefore Ragan’s experience is by no means isolated either in the US, or here in Australia.

In Australia, copyright protection is provided under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Additionally, Australia is a party to a number of international treaties that protect copyright material, including the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works and the Universal Copyright Convention.

Under Australian legislation, copyright owners are automatically granted exclusive rights over material they have created. These rights apply to the original expression of ideas, not to the ideas themselves; they vary according to the nature of work, for example whether the work is musical, literary or artistic. Because copyright automatically exists in Australia, there is no official registry or application process for copyright protection.

The use, reproduction or dissemination of copyrighted material by someone who is not authorised to do so is a breach of copyright. To avoid infringing copyright, obtaining the owner’s consent to use the material is vital. Sharing music, photos and other copyrighted material on social media without permission is a breach of copyright.

In cases of unauthorised use of copyrighted material, courts may award penalties or remedies for the damage caused, which may include:

  • Awarding damages for any loss suffered;
  • Accounting for any profits made by the user;
  • Orders for delivery of any copyrighted material, including for its destruction; and
  • Injunctions to prevent further use of the material.

What to do if you have infringed copyright

If, like Ragan Communications, you receive a legal notice or letter from a lawyer asserting that you have infringed the copyright of the artist, you should immediately contact Baker Love, who may be able to help you to refute the claim (if you have not infringed copyright), or negotiate a settlement. The lawyers for Ragan Communication in the US, for example, were able to negotiate a much lower penalty than the $8,000 originally claimed.

How to avoid infringing copyright

  • If you are regularly using images that you have not created yourself, you should familiarise yourself with copyright laws; indeed, if you create your own images, you should also familiarise yourself with the laws to better protect your intellectual property.
  • Always use images from reputable stock image companies, and follow their image credit directions, whether or not they are free to download, or require payment.
  • Never pull an image off Google’s image search – always go to the original site where the image appeared and seek permission. There are occasions when this may take some time to research properly. Google image search can also help you track the original source if you found the image on a third-party website.

Something to note about Ragan Communications’ admission is that it was traced back to a new staff member. It is important that you discuss copyright issues with your staff – their ignorance and inexperience of copyright law is no excuse, and your business will bear the cost.

N.B. While this article focuses on the use of images on blogs and social media, it is equally related to copyright of images in any other form, such as tee-shirts and publications.

If you need assistance regarding a copyright matter, please contact our intellectual property team. Baker Love also can assist you with a social media policy that provides guidance to staff on various social media behaviours, including their use of images.