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Don’t Commit Copyright Infringement by Mistake

Question: In order to convey the best marketing message for her firm, a friend told me that after many hours of research finding just the right photography online and subsequently activating her website, she was threatened with multiple lawsuits for copyright infringement by photographers, Disney World and Universal Studios. The photographs she selected were among the thousands of cityscapes, amusement parks and other Orlando themes. I’ve always believed photos on the internet were public domain and for anyone’s use. Is it true that if someone displays photographs on their website copied from the internet, they could face financial penalties and legal prosecution for violation of copyright laws?

Answer: Simply put, yes. Most people don’t realize that to use somebody else’s photography as reference for their own website marketing, published advertisements or generating a painting, they need permission from the photograph’s owner. Alternatively, if you’re copying a photograph only to convey an interest to a family member, friend or a business constituent on social media, you’re not necessarily in violation, provided you’re not trying to profit from them.

It’s important to understand what copyright is before you find yourself violating it. Copyright is a form of intellectual property that provides the creator of original work exclusive rights to that work, including its publication, distribution and adaptation, after which time the work is said to enter a public domain such as the internet. Examples of copyright material include photography, computer software, paintings, music, sculptures and literary works.  Although copyrights can be registered, in the United States or in a country with which the U.S. has a copyright treaty, registration is not required. Consider the following example of a lawsuit filed over misuse of internet photos.

Michelle learned the hard way. After using a picture she copied from the internet, the photographer and legal copyright owner sued Michelle and won. At first, Michelle believed she was being scammed by a fake photographer.  After ignoring his notice to pay for use of his photo or face prosecution, she received a notice of a lawsuit filed against her for copyright infringement. Michelle still didn’t believe anyone would demand she pay $2,000 or face prosecution for using a single photograph found online. Reality set in when Michelle was subpoenaed to appear in court to face her accuser. A photo that would have only cost $3.50 on a stock website resulted in Michelle paying her attorney and a settlement to the photographer in the amount of $37,000. 

You can’t use a photograph found on the internet for personal gain. If you want to use photographs or other forms of artwork in the development of your website for advertisements or marketing plans, there are many websites from which you may purchase photos for a nominal fee, such as Shutterstock.com, iStockphoto.com and depositphotos.com. Alternatively, pick up a camera and take your own photos.  

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