Using Copyrighted Images Online - What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

January 3, 2019

How many employees at your non-profit or small business have login credentials for your website and are allowed to publish news, updates, or blog posts?

More to the point, how do you decide such matters?

I’ve seen organizations decide based on what employees clamor for (e.g. “Everyone should be able to post to the blog!”). Not only is there no strategic rationale behind such a decision, it’s irresponsible.

Here’s why: the owners of the business (and possibly directors, if it’s a non-profit) can be held legally liable for what gets posted on the organization’s website.

If images that you don’t have legal permission to use get posted on your site, you can be fined as much as $150,000 per image.

Most employees and leaders that I’ve spoken with don’t realize this and that's disconcerting.

There are two main players when it comes to demand letters and fines.

  1. The owner of the images that you posted: Whether it’s a carefully crafted spectacular photo or a “crappy” image, the owner nonetheless has a right to sue. And they’ve got bots now to track down every site or blog that has posted their images.
  2. “Copyright trolls” — lawyers who use “scorched earth” tactics: They aggressively track unauthorized image use, even on personal blogs.

When it comes to image use, you can’t afford to be naive. Don't assume that “If it’s on the internet, it’s free.”

Yes, Google Images catalogs millions of images, and these are accessible to the public. That doesn’t mean you can use them on your blog or website though.

Website owners need a plan for avoiding copyright infringement.

Click on any image in Google Images search and you'll see in small print underneath: Image may be subject to copyright" followed by a link that goes to their Legal Help page.

By giving website access to employees (and/or volunteers) before there's a system of checks for image use (and other content liability issues), you’re saying “goodbye” to risk management opportunities. You’re green-lighting a free-for-all and abdicating responsibility for the results.

How to Get Your Social Media Account Deleted

You can also get sued if you post an unlicensed image to social media. This is a risk for unknown bloggers all the way up to famous individuals. Supermodel Gigi Hadid has been sued for posting a copyrighted photo of her ex-boyfriend to Instagram. Jennifer Lopez was sued for posting an image of herself to her Instagram account.

If you post copyrighted images or content that you don’t have a right to on social media, your account may also be deleted by the social media company.

Remember those Terms and Conditions that you agreed to when you signed up? (It's easy to skip over these, isn't it?) You agreed to not post any images that you don’t have a right or license to use.

If your account gets deleted for violating the terms and conditions, don't think about suing. You waived your right to sue when you signed up as well.

Plagiarism: Accidental or Otherwise

Most writers engage in online research when preparing an article. They frequently collect research by copying-and-pasting information from online sources.

When it comes time to write the article, they may lose track of which passages in their research notes are their original ideas, and which were copied and pasted from someone else’s article. This can happen fairly easily.

However, if content on your site has been partially or wholly plagiarized from another source, you can be sued.

Solution: Use Copyscape

I recommend using Copyscape. Simply place the URL of your content into Copyscape then the tool will tell you if there are any other instances of that content online.

Note: if your article contains a quote from an online source that may be flagged by Copyscape as duplicate content. So you do need to verify Copyscape’s results. It's well worth the few minutes it takes to do this.

The sheer ease of posting content to a website can result in hasty actions and financial loss.

Create a managed plan for website posting which prioritizes smart risk management.

That plan should be in writing and should include:

  1. Background information for employees about online content liability issues. This should cover images, video, plagiarism, libel and slander. (Consider adding a few links to pertinent news stories.)
  2. How you're going to avoid copyright infringement. Include a simple process for checking content for plagiarism by using Copyscape and a process for obtaining and licensing images, and for providing attribution for those images.

Regarding attribution, I recommend that each image in a post receive:

  • Identification of the photo (e.g. “Photo of field”), with a link to the original source
  • Attribution (name of the photographer), with a link to the photographers’ main page (if he’s listing his images on a community photo site like Unsplash or Flickr.)
  • The name of the website the image was obtained from (e.g., Getty Images, Adobe Stock, Unsplash, Wikimedia), with a link to it
  • The type of license you are using it under (e.g. Creative Commons 2.0) with a link to the actual license.

For example: If I use this image from the photography site Unsplash:

image management

I can credit that photo at the end of the article in the following way:

Photo of field by Léonard Cotte from Unsplash via an Unsplash license.

With an attribution like this anyone in your organization — in an instant — can verify the source of an image. If it's a free image, then anyone can also see that it has been obtained and used legally.

However for images that require a paid licence, you'll have to create plan for recording (and verifying) that payment has been made and a license has been obtained.

Note: Unsplash provides its photos for free and doesn't requiring attribution or licensing. Nevertheless, even in these cases it's a good idea to provide attribution and a link to the license. Your editor needs to be able to quickly determine where the writer got the image from and whether you have a right to use it.

What About the Images Already on Your Website?

High turnover, disorganization, or being in business for many years can increase your risk of having images on your site that you don’t have a legal right to use.

If your situation falls into one of these categories, consider scouring each page of your website to verify you have a right to use each image. Yes, that includes every image placed on each blog post.

How to Find Photos Online and Obtain Licenses

Danielle Antosz, has put together a comprehensive article on stock photos that will tell you where you can get high-quality free stock photos or editorial ('newsmaker') photos plus tips on how licenses work.

You'll learn about public domain images and Creative Commons licenses as well.

Given's popularity with small business owners, this article will reach many business owners who are looking for answers to these questions.

Tip: Read the License

Encourage your writers and editors to read the license for the image they're using. For example, there are many free images available with a Creative Commons license. But observe that the Creative Commons 2.0 license, for example, has some requirements. You'll need to scroll down the license page to see those.

Just because an image is free, doesn't mean you have a legal right to use it.

In this instance, you must:

  • Provide attribution (credit)
  • Provide a link to the license
  • Indicate if any changes were made to the image (e.g. cropping or use of filters)

See the photo credit (at the bottom of the page) for an example of an attribution that meets these sample requirements.

Some Creative Commons licenses prohibit use of images in commercial contexts. Always read the license.


I hope you've found this information useful. Developing good habits now regarding image posting can prevent financial loss and preserve your peace of mind.

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