I recently forwarded an article to a good friend who runs a small business. In the post, a blogger describes the nightmare she endured when she googled “green pepper,” found a simple photo of a bell pepper, and then proceeded to use it in a blog post about pepper coupons. I won’t go into the details here, but the bottom line is that it cost this blogger $7,500.
When my friend read the article, he commented, “that blogger got off easy. We had a graphic artist working for us who did something similar – download a random image from the internet – and it cost our company over $20,000. For one little picture on our web site.” And that’s not the only story I’ve heard from people I know who have unknowingly used an image they found on Pinterest or Google images. Small business owners inadvertently finding themselves on the wrong side of the law is more prevalent than you might think.
Solopreneurs and small business owners often wear many hats. I get that the ins-and-outs of photo usage is not necessarily their area of expertise. But there are a few things to know if you are using images commercially – that is, to promote your products or services in any way – to keep your online visual presence on the up and up.
How to Stay Out of Trouble
Small businesses that find themselves in trouble with copyright infringement, usually made one or more seemingly innocent assumptions. It's not enough, in the eyes of the law, to say, "I didn't know," or "My web designer said it was OK," or "Oops! Sorry!"
Do not assume that if it’s on the internet, it’s public domain.
Whatever you do, do not just download, use, or “borrow” an image you find online. From the moment the camera shutter clicks, an image is the photographer’s intellectual property, protected by international copyright. This applies to tiny images, simple images, and even lousy images. Using any image that is not yours, especially if it’s for any kind of business, can constitute copyright infringement and carry stiff penalties. Plain and simple, it’s theft.
Do not just give “photo credit” and assume your bases are covered.
A common misconception is that giving photo credit makes everything legit. If you’re using the photo in any way that is considered commercial, giving photo credit is not enough. In most cases, that too can be considered copyright infringement and can land you in hot water.
Do not download an internet image and put your own creative spin on it.
Copyright law also covers derivative works. A derivative work is a new, original product that includes aspects of a preexisting, already copyrighted work -- also known as a "new version." If you (or your graphic artist or web designer) take a photo and use it as part of a collage, run it through a bunch of filters, or Photoshop it from here to kingdom come, you are still infringing on the original artist or photographer’s copyright. Don’t do it. Get permission.
One thing you can assume is that every digital photo you see is "all rights reserved."
Keeping Your Web Site and Commercial Images Legit
So, what can you do? Fortunately, small businesses have several options, including Do-It-Yourself, Creative Commons, and Licensing, which covers both stock photography and custom photography. Keep in mind that for each option, the investment of time and money can cover a wide range depending on what kind of photos you need and how you’re going to use them:
DIY Commercial Photography
The safest bet is to take your own business images. Remember when I said, “From the moment the camera shutter clicks, an image is the photographer’s intellectual property”? By taking your own pictures and creating your own images, you unequivocally “own” the photos. They’re yours to do what your heart desires. If you know your way around a camera and you have the time and inclination to take your own photos, go for it. There are loads of resources on Pinterest, for example, for general photography and photography for small business owners.
You may ask, can I use my mobile phone or do I need a fancy camera? I usually say that for most things the kind of camera doesn’t matter, but there can be a noticeable difference between photos taken with a smart phone and photos taken with a digital SLR, particularly if you’re taking close-ups or using the images for any print collateral. In any case, for consistency, use the same camera for all images.
Creative Commons is “a body of work that is available to the public for free and legal sharing, use, repurposing, and remixing.” Artists submit their art, photos, music and so on to creativecommons.org for public use and modify their copyright from the default “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved.” Creative Commons (CC) licenses are not an alternative to copyright. They apply on top of copyright, so be certain to read the terms of the CC license before you use it.
To find CC images, you can start at the Creative Commons search site.
Enter your search term and select a search platform. For this example, we’re going to search google images for creative commons images of “cupcakes:”
The search returns dozens of cupcake images. Note that one of the highlighted search terms is “labeled for reuse with modification” -- the widest amount of rights granted to the public. By clicking the dropdown menu, you can see other ways you can search for images labeled for reuse:
When you click an image, chances are it will take you to Pixabay, a resource with lots of creative commons images. Be sure to check that the image is free to use under Creative Commons licensing:
Another good place to find CC licensed images is on Flickr. Here’s a cupcake image found with a search through https://search.creativecommons.org/ with the Flickr option selected:
For Flickr images, however, it’s even more important to double check whether you can use the image for your intended proposes. Flickr has several license types, including attribution, non-derivative, and noncommercial. Look at the bottom right of the screen; if there is a link that reads “Some rights reserved,” click it and double check that you can use the image commercially.
Many small business owners grow and get to the point where they know they need professional quality branded photography and/or simply don’t have the time to DIY. You can either purchase stock or find a professional photographer. In either case, you are “licensing” the photos.
Remember, the one constant is that “From the moment the camera shutter clicks, an image is the photographer’s intellectual property, protected by international copyright.” When you pay for a photographer to take an image, you are paying for the use of that image.
A license is an agreement, not unlike a type of rental agreement, between the photographer and the client; it specifies how the client can use the photo(s) and for how long. The scope and length of the license is often reflected in the licensing fee. Typically, the more rights a photographer is granting you, the higher the fee.
In the diagram to the right, most for-profit-bloggers’ and small business owners’ photo usage falls under “Commercial.” For your own protection, when working with a professional photographer, be certain to clarify upfront how the images will be used and to get written permission to use them.
In the case of stock photography, you are also paying for a license. Be sure you’re aware of the terms. Sometimes they’re outlined in a small link next to a checkbox that you click before downloading.
So, are your web site photos and other business images legit? Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Sometimes, it can be hard to know what you can and cannot do with materials found on the internet. The bottom line for small businesses is if you didn’t take the picture or pay for it, assume it is copyrighted and will need to be licensed one way or another. This post doesn’t even touch on fair use, because generally speaking, fair use doesn’t apply to commercial usage.
Making your small business website visually appealing doesn’t have to be fraught with danger. If you have questions on safer ways to liven up your website, please leave a comment or get in touch. Want more practical visual asset advice? Sign up for my newsletter for approachable, accessible, actionable advice delivered straight into your inbox.