With the limitless bounds of the internet at our disposal, it is easy to forget where content comes from when it can appear with just the click of a button. Need a reference, gif, or image for that article you’re writing? You can plug the subject into a search engine and find one in an instant. More than likely, the image you pull has been generated by someone else, and that person may have fundamental legal rights to the use of their creation.


Intellectual Property & Copyright


The internet is full of intellectual property, from scholarly articles to videos of cats to blog posts. However, the most commonly produced works are, of course, photographs, and they are protected by a variety of U.S. federal copyright laws right from the moment they are taken (whether they’re professional or amateur shots). Copyright protection generally lasts until up to 70 years after the death of the author—or the photographer, in this case—and applies to both published and unpublished work. While it’s not exactly required, registering your work at the United States Copyright Office will allow you to file a copyright infringement lawsuit in federal court if you see your pictures being used elsewhere.


What Happens When a Copyrighted Photo is Used Without Permission?


So you’ve found an image on the web that is just perfect for your site, and you go ahead and post it alongside some of your content. After all, it’s only one image, so how much can it hurt?

Unfortunately, severe repercussions can arise when you neglect to go through the proper motions to gain the rights to use any intellectual property. Whether it’s a photograph or some form of written work, there is always a risk of receiving a copyright infringement lawsuit or a demand letter from a lawyer.

This, of course, is a worst-case scenario; these two types of penalties are generally only for serious cases that involve financial loss and are a result of the creator seeking compensation for their work and other potential damages.

An alternative likelihood is that the rights holder (or their lawyer) will reach out to ask for recognition, compensation for the licensing fee, or discontinued use of the image entirely. If this first notification of the infringement isn’t met with compliance, the next ally to join the fight is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, where the internet service provider will step in and act as a mediator until ultimately the image is removed to cease further violation.

When weighed against the possible consequences, the process of responsibly locating images doesn’t sound so taxing, now does it?


How Do I Then Legally Obtain Images?


The most common way for images to be shared without violating copyright is through licensing, which is the consent you’re looking for to be able to use someone’s intellectual property.  Some very commonly used examples of licensing are social media platforms that involve a lot of photo-sharing. When you sign up to use this type of service, there is a photo licensing agreement written within the Terms of Service so that they have the approval to post your photographs on their website without any infringement on the image’s copyright.

While some image providers require you to pay for licensing rights, others will grant use of their work as long as it is presented in a specific condition, per the artist. This type of licensing is known as the Creative Commons, and you can see it everywhere from an image credit under an article photo in a magazine to a photographer allowing the use of his work for non-commercial purposes only.

Looking for more specific content? You can commission someone to create custom work designed to fit any of your website needs. This kind of transaction considers the product a work made for hire and puts the intellectual property rights into the hands of the patron and not the artist.

At the end of the day, whenever you’re in doubt about where to get your content, there is always the public domain. Images in this realm do not have any copyright laws attached to them, for the copyright has either expired or the holder intentionally made the material free to the public. If you’re looking for a more generic picture and are willing to do a little combing through the internet for it, the public domain is an easy way to provide a few visuals to your website duly.

Remember, stealing images can hurt not only other content producers trying to establish a name for themselves but also your own digital presence that you’re similarly working to build.