A Picture is Worth A Thousand Dollar Lawsuit.


We all post pictures on Facebook or Instagram. A Google search will yield a kaleidoscope of images, photos and artwork that can easily be downloaded to your desktop with a simple “right click” of the mouse. But who owns those images? Say that you’re doing a PowerPoint presentation or an advertisement for your business, is Google really a valid source for your artwork needs?

A simple rule of thumb concerning copyright–if you didn’t create it you don’t own it and you need to obtain permission from the creator before you can, say, use a photo on your website.  There have been many cases in which a business or publisher has used some piece of photography or artwork without the artist’s permission and have been sued for damages. 

For example there is the case of the microphotographer, Andrew Paul, who makes a living taking photos of subjects the human eye can’t see.  His photos of  bone marrow stem cells were misappropriated by a medical research company and used on their website and marketing materials as clipart.  Paul sued and was awarded $1.6 million in damages.

A more typical case involved Soul Temple Records and the photographer Lyle Owerko. Owerko had produced a photographic series of vintage boomboxes, two of which were used illegally by Soul Temple in artwork for rapper, U-God’s 2013 solo album. That Google search and subsequent “right clicking” ended up costing Soul Temple Records $200,000 in damages.

Other than hiring a professional photographer, a recommended source for art and photography would be a stock photography website.  A few notable and reliable websites you can visit are:

iStockphoto.com: Royalty-free photography, illustration and video clips.

Shutterstock.com: Subscription based source for stock art. Various licenses available.

Gettyimages.com: Great source for celebrity photos.

Be careful of the licensing agreement when you purchase a photo.  Buying artwork is not like buying an item of clothing that you can use as you want.  Unless specifically stated in a written agreement you never fully own artwork, and you may be limited to how long you can use it and what you can use it on.  On royalty-free images you usually only have to pay once for use and you can continue to use it within limits. While on rights-managed images you may have to continue to pay a fee or you’d only be able to use the photo once.

Now to make things even more confusing there is such a thing as a “creative commons license”.  In such an agreement an author may allow ANYONE to use their images to share and create other artworks.  Such agreements may limit the images to non-commercial use and may require attribution in the form of a copyright notice.

The moral of the story is that “finders-keepers” just isn’t a viable code of conduct in the digital era, where anything can be found with a few keystrokes in an internet search engine.  Beware of the images you are using to market and advertise your business. Where are they from? Do you have permission to use them? Will it cost you more money in the long run to grab something off of Google or to hire a professional to take photos for you?

As the old saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”  And if you are mindful of copyrights and permissions, those one thousand words won’t be in the form of  a cease and desist letter from a lawyer.