Why We Are Removing Our Images… And You Probably Should Too

Laura Ginn

Just how careful are you about the images you use on your blog or other website? We are removing all images we don’t explicitly own the rights to from our sites right now, and we want to explain why. This is partly to admit that despite our commitment to doing things right, we fell foul of some common misinformation about image copyright law and are now doing what we can to remedy it, but mostly to help our community avoid any issues of their own. Obviously we are always delighted when our readers share our content, but in this case we really would appreciate it if you could share this with bloggers and site owners you know – predatory copyright infringement lawsuits can destroy businesses and ultimately damage the web industry as a whole, so we all benefit from being informed about the risks.

Photo by Sarah Biljana
Photo by Sarah Biljana

Why What You Believe About Fair Use May Well Be Wrong

Chances are, you are aware of the issue of copyright law surrounding the use of images you find online, and the fact that there is a large chunk of the legal industry dedicated to tracking down and suing people who infringe on this law. We were, too.

Chances are you wouldn’t intentionally ‘steal’ an image or any other media you knew you had no right to use, either – both because it presents a legal risk to your business and because it is unethical. We had the same attitude.

So, to give credit to the right people and to keep your business safe from predatory lawyers, you probably, like us, only used images when you believed you had met the conditions that would ensure your usage constituted ‘fair use’. The trouble is, there is a huge amount of misinformation about what fair use actually means, and the areas are so grey that even legal experts who specialise in copyright law wouldn’t necessarily be able to give a definitive answer on every case without a fair amount of work.

Because so many people now have blogs and websites and they want to (legally) use media they can find online on them, there are many of us out there who have looked for simple answers to a difficult question, i.e. ‘under what circumstances can I legally use an image on my site?’, and this is why so many of us have become misinformed and some have had to pay the price when they have been ‘caught’ unknowingly infringing copyright law.

You may, for example, believe any or all of the following:

  • You can use an image that isn’t clearly marked as copyrighted
  • You can use an image as long as your website has no commercial intentions
  • You can use an image as long as you credit the owner
  • You can use an image as long as you embed it rather than hosting it on your own server
  • You can’t be sued for using a copyrighted image until you have failed to take it down at the request of the owner
  • You can use an image if you resize it or change it to black and white
  • You can use an image if you link to the owner
  • You can safeguard against potential copyright issues by adding a disclaimer to your site

In actual fact, you can do all of these things, and still be subject to a copyright infringement lawsuit.

The Nature of Copyright Lawsuits

Certainly, there are ethical people out there who, upon discovering you have used an image they own, and do not want you using (or do not want you using for free) will simply contact you and ask you to remove it or buy the rights to use it, and, should you do as they ask, the issue is resolved. There are also people who have to sue people who infringe on their image copyright to protect their own business interests, for example professional photographers, artists and designers, whose livelihood is the images they own, or people who own images that are worth a lot of money to them (like exclusive photos of celebrities). We are not saying that bloggers are always the good guys and all copyright owners are after a fast buck penalising them for honest mistakes.

However, in an age where user generated content is a major part of the media, there are branches of the legal industry all over the world who make it their business to encourage anyone who has the rights to an image to litigate against anyone who has used it. The value that they tend to try and sue for is generally quite arbitrary, too, and bears no relationship to the actual value of the image and any damages the use of it on a different website may have caused the owner.

To put that in context, you may have a post on your blog that you can prove only ever had fifty page views, and that post may contain a photo someone took on their phone and posted on the web a couple of years ago, which you found and, believing (for any of the reasons we previously described) you were within the boundaries of fair use, included in your post.

You may then, out of the blue, be told you are being sued for thousands of pounds (or dollars, or euros – this is a global phenomenon).

The photo was worth basically nothing to the owner, financially, and barely anyone even saw it on your site, but they can sue for an amount that could cripple or crush you or your business. And that is not fair.

So What Should You Do?

We strongly recommend that your first action is to remove any images from sites you own that you do not definitely own the rights to use – either because you bought them, because you have the express written permission of the owner, or because you created them yourself. There is software out there that can constantly scan the web for image matches and the likelihood of you getting caught with ‘illegal’ images is much higher than you may think.

Secondly, if you work with anybody else on producing content for your site, whether it is content creators, web developers, or designers, make sure that they are aware of all of this and either ask for content without images so you can buy, create or otherwise source them yourself, or give them a budget to buy images as part of your deal with them.

At present, the law is not on the side of site owners, and slipping up is terrifyingly easy. We’re taking action to remove any even remotely risky images from our site, and we really hope you see the value in doing the same.