It may seem harmless to use a picture from the Internet on your website, but when you copy and paste an image from one website to another you have infringed on the owner’s copyright.
How will the owner ever know?
While it is unlikely the owner of the image will ever visit your website, there are companies that exist for the sole purpose of searching (also known as trolling) the internet to find unlicensed images. Here is a link to one such company’s press release: Masterfile.
How do you find out if an image has a copyright?
Start with the assumption that every image or picture has a copyright. There are some limited circumstances where images are created for the purpose of being used by others; also known as public domain work. This could only be determined by review of the user agreement for image and the truthfulness of the site.
Copyright protection is automatic as soon as the work is fixed in a tangible form of expression (i.e., the photograph is taken and fixed in memory of a digital camera or on film).
What if the owner never registered the copyright?
Registration of a copyright with the library of congress provides additional protections such as statutory damages, attorneys’ fees, and the presumption of validity. Even if the owner has not registered the copyright, you can still be sued infringement of the unregistered work.
What is the solution?
If you want pictures for your website, contact the owner (or company that licenses the images) and purchase a license. Keep an accurate file on your current license agreements in the event you are asked to verify your right to use the image.
If you are working with a website design company or graphic designer, your contract should require they provide you proof of license to any files used. Terms related to the ownership of images should be addressed in a properly executed Work for Hire Agreement with the design company.
The best practice would be to purchase the images directly. This will limit the risk that a company like Masterfile will send you a demand letter requesting a payoff for unregistered use.
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