There is perhaps nothing sweeter than finding the perfect image for your website or blog online. If it’s online, it’s in the public domain, right? It means I can use it with no worries, right?

WRONG

Everything has a copyright. The photographer who took the photo owns the copyright to that photo. Just because a photo is available online doesn’t mean you have any right to use it. If you’re using an image commercially, the owner must grant permission for it to be used in that way. If you use an image you found on another site you could be violating the owner’s copyright.

Around a decade ago a customer gave me an image to use for their advertising. I figured that since it came from the customer that it would have been fine to use. Imagine my surprise when a FedEx envelope arrived one day demanding $5000 in licensing fees for the photo my customer had given me to use. It turned out the image was a composite image and it had incorporated someone else’s copyrighted photo. $5K for one photo. How does that feel to you? I felt nausea and sweats, and I felt even worse after talking to my lawyer and realized that I didn’t have a signed waiver from the customer certifying that they had the rights to all the content and images they provided for their website. It looked like I was going to be stuck with the bill.

Fortunately for me I called the digital rights management company and explained the situation, that the customer had given me the image for advertising in a directory website I manage. The digital rights management company said that since it was used on a portal website, they would absolve me of responsibility and would instead go directly after the customer. I don’t know how that turned out for them, but I slept a lot better without having that $5K sword hanging over my head.

What About Free Image Libraries?

What you don’t know is where those libraries got their images and whether the photographers truly granted permission for their images to be used. Sometimes free image libraries scrape images from elsewhere and offer them as their own content. My advice: avoid free image libraries.

But I Probably Won’t Get Sued

True, but if you do, are you ready for it?

So What Do I Do Now?

A few suggestions:

  1. Take your own photos. That way you know they’re yours.
  2. Use a commercial stock image library to get licensed images. istockphoto.com, fotolia.com, dreamstime.com are some popular ones.
  3. Get copyright-free images from reliable sources. pixabay.com, stocksnap.io, unsplash.com are some popular places to go online.
  4. Take copyright into consideration when thinking of images for your site.

When you only have licensed or copyright-free images on your site you’ll be protecting your brand, your reputation, and your wallet. Thinking you can get away with using copyrighted images forever in this day and age is nuts. That free image could cost you thousands one day and unless you’re squirreling away money for that inevitable bill or lawsuit, it’s going to hurt.┬áThe rewards of using “free” images are definitely not worth the risks.