When it comes to author website design, copyright issues are a major concern. This is particularly true when it comes to choosing photos. Clients often ask if it’s fair game to snag a photo from the Internet and use it on their website or blog. I’m not an intellectual property lawyer, but I can tell you with confidence that if you violate someone’s copyright, there are likely to be consequences. Penalties can range from a takedown notice to a lawsuit seeking substantial damages. As a general rule, assume an image found online is subject to copyright and unavailable to use to promote your book without securing the appropriate permission.
“Oh but it’s just little old me—they’re never going to find my site.” That’s a common refrain, and potentially risky thinking. The problem is that the “they” isn’t a “them,” as in human beings. Rights holders and their agents constantly unleash software that trolls the Web looking for copyrighted material being used without permission. While resulting actions may not amount to anything, they’re still a nuisance and an emotional and potentially financial drain. Remember, the whole idea for you is to write books, not defend yourself in court.
This past year, we saw the problem unfold up close. A client posted commercial music on his site without having permission to do so. Within seven days, a robot zeroed in on the music. Our primary server provider received a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notice. We were given 72-hours to remove the music in question, or face the prospect of having the entire server shut down—not just the offending site. We removed the music immediately. There were no consequences, other than the time wasted on the back-and-forth communication, as well as the time spent removing the music from the client’s site.
What’s the Best Course of Action When Choosing Photos?
Here are some options and caveats for choosing photos when it comes to your website or blog. Again, this is NOT legal advice, but it does provide basic guidelines for making good choices:
- Short of taking the photos yourself, the safest course of action is to purchase royalty-free images from a stock photo company. There are dozens of providers. Just search “royalty-free stock photos” and you’ll find a gaggle of companies, like Shutterstock, iStock, and Getty Images. You can also use completely free sites with beautiful, hi-res photos like Unsplash and Pixabay — they are completely royalty-free and don’t even require attribution.
Here are two guidelines when dealing with stock photo images:
- Make sure that the images are royalty-free. That means you can use them in all kinds of contexts—you just can’t resell the images. Since other restrictions may apply too, it is imperative that you read whatever the stock image site posts about how you can use the images. You may also encounter RIGHTS MANAGED photos. With rights managed images, you pay to use the picture for a particular time and for a particular medium, among other criteria. Note that these images can be very expensive, depending on the subject matter, source, and intended use.
- Make certain that the image you’ve selected does not say: Editorial Use Only. Generally, this means an image is earmarked for use by people in the news media business. Read that as “not for commercial purposes.” If the point of your site or blog is promote or advertise your book, that’s a commercial purpose. Check out the policy of any site that offers photos for editorial use.
- Use a photo-sharing service. When using a photo-sharing service, proceed with caution and don’t assume that all images are up for grabs. Check with the owner of an image about usage restrictions and attribution requirements (a lot of amateur photographers want to be recognized for their work, so a photo credit is in order) and secure any necessary permission to use an image to promote or advertise your book.
- If possible, avoid obtaining photos from Google or Wikipedia, unless the owner of the image is clearly identified and you can obtain permission to use the image to promote your book. The mere appearance of a photo on Google Images or Wikipedia does not mean that the image in question is in the public domain or free to use. Often an image appears on such platforms without the photographer’s consent. Explaining to a photographer’s attorney that you found his or her client’s photo on Google Images will not serve as a defense to copyright infringement.
Understand Rights Issues and Fair Use
The Internet is causing legal experts to rethink all kinds of rights issues concerning fair use. Lots of people believe that anything posted should be free to use; others believe that those who create content have a right to protect and profit from their work. Remember this: the fact that “everyone does it” or an image is “all over the net” does not constitute a defense if an infringement case comes to blows. You also might want to contact an experienced copyright attorney if you’re concerned about the images you plan on using.
Finally, the old saw, “it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission,” may not be the wisest approach when you’re looking for photo content. How about this instead: when in doubt, take a pass. You can always find something suitable that’s legally okay to incorporate into your author website design.
Reviewed by Christopher Rooney, Esq., an attorney who specializes in intellectual property law for creatives and small businesses (www.rooneylegal.com)