I’ll make it simple if you don’t want to read a long article: No.
But read on for the nuances.
Copyright and Images on the Internet
Does copyright apply when you get an image off of the internet? Yes.
Copyright is automatically granted to creators as soon as their original work is fixed in a tangible form. This means that the moment an image, photograph, design, or other creative work is created, it becomes copyrighted. No registration or formal process is required for copyright to exist.** Copyright holders do not have to display the © symbol for the image to be subject to copyright!
Initially, the creator or author of the work is the owner of the copyright. This means they have exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, display, and perform their creation. These rights allow creators to control and monetize their work.
It’s crucial to realize that everything on the internet is or was copyrighted to someone at some point. This means that most images found online are protected by copyright, whether or not the owner enforces it. While the author may not always require permission or a licensing fee, the copyright itself still exists.
***In the U.S., to sue on a copyright, the owner must register it. This can be done before or after the infringement occurs. Timing of the registration has a direct effect on the amount of damages that can be recovered.
Using Images From Google
Many times, small business owners will look on Google Images to find an image for their website, social media, or blog post. Many make the assumption that the images shown are “in the public domain” or “creative commons” due to their presence in the Google Search.
However, Google does not display images based on copyright status. Instead, Google just aggregates images and displays them in the search results. The images found on Google are subject to copyright law just like any other image.
If you didn’t know this, you’re not alone. Many individuals make this assumption. I tell clients not to be embarrassed– and now, you do know!
What are the Penalties for using an Image off of Google?
Using a copyrighted image without proper authorization or licensing can result in various penalties, depending on the jurisdiction and the specific circumstances.
Unauthorized use of an image, whether intentional or unintentional, can lead to lawsuits and substantial financial penalties. Damages can range from the amount you would have paid for a license to
Legal Damages: If a copyright owner discovers that their copyrighted image has been used without permission, they may choose to pursue legal action. In a successful copyright infringement lawsuit, the court may award the copyright owner monetary damages. The damages can range from actual damages, which could be the licensing fee the owner would have charged, to statutory damages, which can amount to up to $150,000 per work, per infringement.
Injunctions: In addition to seeking monetary damages, a copyright owner may also seek an injunction to stop infringing use. An injunction is is a court order to stop the infringing use of the copyrighted image. If granted, the injunction would require the infringer to immediately cease using the image or face legal consequences for non-compliance.
Legal Fees and Costs: If a copyright owner has registered the copyright, a court may also require the infringer to pay the legal fees and costs incurred by the copyright owner during the litigation process. This can significantly increase the financial burden on the infringer.
Reputation Damage: Using a copyrighted image without permission can also result in reputational damage for individuals or businesses. Publicly being accused of copyright infringement and facing legal action can harm one’s professional reputation and credibility, especially in the small business community in an age of social media.
Criminal Penalties: In some (albeit uncommon) cases, copyright infringement can be considered a criminal offense. This usually occurs in instances of willful and intentional infringement. Criminal penalties can include fines and imprisonment, especially for large-scale or commercial infringement activities like piracy websites.
These penalties illustrate why using images found on the internet, especially on Google, may seem harmless, but can lead to serious legal consequences.
What if I link to the original creator?
Using a registered copyright-protected image without permission can result in legal action, even if you provide attribution. Giving credit does not absolve you of copyright infringement.
Instead, to legally use copyrighted images or any other copyrighted material, you must obtain proper licensing or permission from the copyright owner. Licensing agreements outline the terms and conditions under which the copyrighted material can be used. They may involve payment of a licensing fee, specifying the duration, scope, and purpose of use.
Recent Increase in Claims
You may be thinking “They’ll never find me!” But you’d be wrong.
Recently, we have witnessed a significant increase in copyright infringement claims made by groups such as PicRights, FoodPhotos, Agence France Presse, and other groups. These entities employ automated bots to scour the internet, searching for images belonging to them or their clients. Subsequently, they send out demand letters seeking substantial sums of money for unauthorized use of the images, threatening lawsuits if not paid (often via a law firm like Higbee & Associates).
How do I avoid liability for Using Google Images?
To protect yourself and your business from potential legal troubles, it is crucial to take the following steps:
- Always Use Properly Licensed Images: Only use images that are properly licensed, avoiding the temptation to grab screenshots from Google Images. Use vetted stock images sites, not websites where users can upload images to share. Some of our favorite resources are Canva Pro, Getty, and Sourced Co.
- Audit and Remove Unauthorized Images: Review your website, blog, and social media accounts for any images whose sources you are uncertain about. If you cannot verify the origin, promptly remove them from your platforms and delete them from your server.
- Responding to Demand Letters: If you receive a demand letter from any of these organizations or others, it is vital not to engage without legal counsel. Admitting anything, even use of the image, can damage your case and ability to fight a lawsuit. Seek the assistance of an attorney who can guide you through the process, reviewing any documents, and advising on the best course of action.
- Indemnity Clauses and Agreements: Consider including indemnity clauses in your agreements with third-party designers and content creators. These clauses can help protect you from secondary liability in the instance they provide you with copyrighted material without proper licenses.
Using images from Google without proper licensing or permission can have severe legal consequences. It is essential to understand the basics of copyright law and take proactive measures to ensure your business remains compliant. Always use properly licensed images, audit your online presence, and seek legal advice when dealing with copyright infringement claims. Protect yourself and your business from an expensive mistake!