Noelle Federico, CFO of Dreamstime, contributed this article to BusinessNewsDaily's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Whether you are publishing updates to a company website, posting project reports or a blog, you likely need artwork to complement your text. Many people today turn to the Internet assuming photos, videos and other online content are free for the taking.
However, many of these abundant resources are actually copyrighted and using them without permission can easily land you in a legal snafu. This situation can be an easy one to avoid, though, if you know how and where to look for the right kind of images.
U.S. Copyright laws may be years behind the fast-paced world of social media and blogs, but they still control how a copyrighted work can be used. Like any other content, the starting point of the law is that photos are protected by copyright. This means that you have the right to stop someone else from copying your work. So, if you've taken a photo, you own it — no one else can copy it without your permission. This is an automatic right, and you don't need a registration to copyright something.
Another image-related term, Fair Use, can sometimes be a complicated, gray area to understand. In general, Fair Use allows the public to use copyrighted images without permission. So, if you copy another person's original work, including photography, you must pass the "basic" Fair Use test.
Fair Use Laws operate on a case-by-case basis; there are guidelines that can be found at www.copyright.gov. Today, occurrences of infringement are often judged on case-by-case, where intent of the use weighs heavily in the decision-making. This means that if you purposefully copied a photographer's photo and tried to use it for material gain (as opposed to using in a school report), your intent could make the difference in a final copyright lawsuit judgment.
It's important to understand that Fair Use does allow you to use another person's work for the purpose of education, commentary, reporting or criticism. This means that you can indeed use copyrighted material without a license only for certain purposes. It's safe, for example, to use an image found online in a social media post if it is for educational purposes, like a school project commentary.
However, you can't simply grab a copyrighted photo and then use it on a website just because you think it's cool-looking or striking. And if you are using the photo for financial gain, or to grow your business' engagement or social media "likes," it's not OK.
When searching for legal images to use in your projects, make sure that you investigate the source of the picture or artwork before you right-click and copy it. Just because it's possible to copy an image that isn't watermarked, it does not mean you have the legal right to use it.
Ultimately, the best way to use an online image is to simply reach out to the photographer and ask permission. At the end of the day, it's all about basic respect in the marketplace. Be sure to use the same courtesy and respect for material found on the web that you would want someone to use with you.
There are plenty of images that can be bought or obtained for free. For instance, through Yahoo! or Google Image search, users can find publicly reusable photos. There also are many Wikipedia's photos that have been approved for use. In addition, there are numerous free and paid stock image services that can be found online.
Copyright and Fair Use laws are very complex, but you don't have to be an attorney to understand the basics. When it comes to using images online, trust your instincts: if you aren't sure who owns the copyright, then just don't use it at all.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.