A few years back, I got a panicked call from my brother Charlie, an accomplished artist and wood carver in Florida, who creates huge, underwater tableaus with life-size fish, coral and sea turtles. Charlie also sells his popular pelicans and tikis as fast as he can make them, outside of his studio on Highway 98 in Gulf Breeze Florida.
Charlie called to tell me that he found that his pelicans and tikis were being featured for sale on a competitor’s e-commerce website as if Charlie’s work was their own! Charlie called me in a panic about this blatant case of copyright infringement. Not every situation is quite such a clear case of theft.
These days with social media sharing and the lack of seeing a specific copyright notice on all the cool things we see online, it’s easy to see why people might think they had free access to use these images on their own social media accounts or in their blog posts. They may even think they’re doing someone a favor by sharing their images, posts, or words.
US Copyright laws control how a copyrighted work can be used. And while the Digital Millennium Copyright Act exists, it really doesn’t provide anything new when it comes to explaining how to properly use photos or images online that you do not own. So that you don’t have to pore over the reading of the law yourself, here are it’s Cliff-notes.
Did you take the photo or create the graphic?
If you made it, then you own it. If you were the photographer or created the graphic yourself, then no worries, as long as you weren’t hired to take them for someone else. If they’re truly yours, then you own the copyright and can do whatever you wish with the image.
The difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement.
Similar in some respects, yet distinctly different in others. Plagiarism is when you claim attribution for a work you did not create, or when you use someone else’s work without proper attribution. On the other hand, Copyright infringement is using someone else’s work without first obtaining their permission to do so.
Attribution isn’t absolution.
You’re not allowed to use another person’s photo, image, blog post or novel without permission. Period. You can’t just upload a Harry Potter book to your blog and give JK Rollins a credit or link back to the original book and think that everything is above board. No, that would-be copyright infringement! And you probably already know that. But you may not realize that reposting someone’s blog post in its entirety is copyright infringement as well. You might think that you’re doing them a favor by giving their work some valuable exposure. But it’s not okay to post other people’s work without getting their permission.
You can create an excerpt of the post or a short paragraph and then do a synopsis about it and link back to the person’s site. That’s fine. But please – no more than that.
The Copyright laws protect the copyright holder and give them the right to decide who may publish their work and where. Perhaps they don’t want their song played as the anthem of a political campaign, for example. Or, maybe they hate your blog or social media site and just don’t want their work displayed on your site.
If you find copyrighted images that you’d like to use for some purpose or another, often, all you have to do is ask permission. Reach out to that Flicker photographer and ask to use her images for the triathlon for the website you’re building. I’ve found that people often say yes and are happy to get a credit for the use or a reasonable payment.
On the other hand, imagine that same person’s surprise when they go online and see their images on the website you built for a client for money. That same person may rightly feel violated and that’s who decides to send you a DMCA Takedown Notice, which is a notification that you are in violation of copyright laws and gives you a chance to remove the material in question. If you don’t, your Internet Service Provider will.
The hosting companies get immunity from copyright infringement. They are highly motivated to keep this immunity status so they police their hosting clients and act quickly when someone sends them a DMCA Takedown notice for a copyright infringement.
What if it’s your content that you find on someone else’s site like my brother did? When Charlie found his wood carving art on someone else’s website, being passed off as if it was their work, it was a fairly easy process to provide the DMCA notice to the thief’s web host. We found the host by typing in the thief’s URL into a webhost identification site. Once we notified the host, they checked out Charlie’s back up information and the other guy’s site was down in no time.
What’s the responsibility and liability of a Website Designer for images on a client’s site?
Web designers need to be very careful to make sure that all of the images on their client’s website are licensed. And the owners of websites need to be clear that their designers have the licenses for the images on their sites. Otherwise, the site owner may be on the receiving end of a DMCA takedown for an image the designer selected to use on their website.
If you, as the website owner, get a notice to take down an image or worse, have to pay a fine to avoid a suit, blaming the issue on your web designer won’t fly as a defense to the enforcers of copyright infringement.
It’s a good idea to address this issue in your website contract so the site owner understands that they’ll need to license any photos used.
As a web designer, how does the license of stock images work with client sites?
In general, if you, as a web designer, purchase Royalty-Free stock photography, you’re allowed to use it in the design you produce for a third-party, such as a client. Here are some suggestions on where to find the great blog post images. As long as….
The image is part of the web design – Royalty-Free images can be used to create a client website but you’re not allowed to give the client the image itself for use in other contexts. The image is only theirs to use in the web design you created and delivered to them. They can’t take that image from their website and use it somewhere else. To do so is copyright infringement.
The design must be for a one-end customer – Most Royalty-Free standard licenses allow you to use an image in a design for one end-user, or you can use the image in multiple designs created for multiple end users. You’re allowed to use that image on one design that you sell to multiple end-users without an Extended License. This kind of usage is generally restricted in Standard Royalty-Free. You can use stock photos in a design you’ve been hired to create, or in a variety of designs that you’ll then offer to end customers.
Who owns the license for the image? If you bought the license, then you own it. If the client wants to use it in marketing collateral they create themselves, then they have to purchase their own license to use the image.
Can you transfer the license of the image to the client? No. The licenses are not transferable. The client would have to purchase their own license to use the image in other ways. What they own is the copyright to use the image in the design you created; they have no right to the image itself unless they also buy a license for its use.
Bottom Line: You should always check the licensing rules of the stock agencies you use and make sure your clients understand the license as well so they don’t use an image from their website design on other collateral materials without getting their own license or having you create it for them.
This issue of copyright of images used online is complicated, but the bottom line is this: If you have any doubt about what’s the right thing to do, either get permission or don’t use it. Simple as that.