Three Essentials Truths to Avoiding Copyright Infringement

Just because you can download and use an image from the internet, doesn’t mean you should. unless you have your own personal team of copyright defense lawyers on retainer and want to keep them busy. Here are three things to know before you click download.

1. The person who takes a picture owns the copyright. Period.

The only truly safe picture for you to use on your website, social media or blog is one that you took by pressing your finger to the shutter on your camera. This concept is summarized on WikiHow as part of a good article on the subject, “Avoid Copyright Infringement.”

“Copyright law protects any original creation, and grants the holder of the copyright exclusive control over when, how, and by whom their work may be copied, distributed, or exhibited. This includes literary works, paintings, photographs, drawings, films, music (and its lyrics), choreography, sculptures and many other creative works.”

The WikiHow article also covers topics that aren’t covered here, such as intellectual property, expired copyrights, and public domain.

There was even a court case in which a monkey took a selfie with a professional wildlife photographer’s camera. PETA sued David Slater, the photographer, stating that because the monkey tripped the shutter, the monkey owns the rights to the picture. The Federal Judge ruled for Slater (against PETA), but only because an animal can’t own a copy rights. If it was a person taking a selfie with Slater’s camera, it sounds as though Slater would have lost and the person whose finger presses the shutter would own the rights. (See “Monkey Can’t Own Copyright To His Selfie, Federal Judge Says” on NPR, which also grazes the issue of differing copyright laws between countries.)

2. It is not necessary to claim a copyright for it to be in effect.

The author of an original work automatically owns the rights to it, whether published or not, and whether they claim the it or not. The purpose of claiming ownership is to warn others away from copying or stealing original work and to provide a way to prove it in court.

This means that it is not okay to use someone else’s photo just because it is not labeled as restricted or owned. Let’s say you find the perfect picture on a website where people freely share their photos (like Flickr or Pinterest) and that picture doesn’t mention ownership anywhere on it or on the page. If you use it in your own blog post, article, or even printed work, you are susceptible to lawsuit by the person who snapped that picture.

3. The Fair Use provision does not prevent the copyright owner from suing you.

They may not win, but you will still be hiring a lawyer and losing sleep.

Some of us have thought that it’s safe to use photos from the Internet for non-profit or university use, under the Fair Use provision. US Copyright code limits the copyright owners’ rights “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.” From my own personal experience, using a photo on a non-profit website can still result in a copyright infringement notice from a scary lawyer and an out-of-pocket settlement.

The internet provides instant, free access to so much information and media, making it far too easy to reuse someone’s original work and violate their copyright without meaning to. Now that you have an understanding of how copyrights work and know what images not to use, see my next post on where to find good images that are ok to use, Safely Sourcing Images from the Internet.


Disclaimer: This information is my interpretation and should not be construed as legal advice. Please seek legal council before taking action.