How to Avoid Internet Copyright Infringement


It’s so easy to find an image online that works great on your website or fits perfectly with your blog post—and to copy and paste it right in. However, using copyrighted online images—including unknowingly—is extremely risky. This blog post will discuss copyright protections, the damages you may face if you get caught violating intellectual property rights, and how to avoid ever taking the risk.

What Is Protected by Copyright Law?

United States copyright law is contained in Title 17 of the U.S. code, and protects all “works of authorship,” which are original creative works that express ideas in tangible form. “Tangible” simply means the works can be reproduced or copied. Intellectual property covered by copyright law includes everything from music, to video, to artwork and photography. Note that images or words do not need to bear a copyright symbol to be protected by copyright law.

Copyright law grants specific rights to a copyright owner—the right to reproduce the copyrighted work, and to publicly distribute, display, or perform the copyrighted work. When copyright protections are infringed, the copyright holder is entitled to an injunction, actual damages, and profits in excess of actual damages. Since damages can be difficult to prove, statutory damages are often available.

While this summarizes United State copyright law, other countries also have copyright laws, and some are even more stringent. The basic principle is always, “Don’t take what isn’t yours without paying for it.”

Use of Images on the Internet

Images found online are not in the “public domain” just because they are publicly available. Don’t assume that lack of a copyright notice gives you the right to use an image. Images may be specifically labeled for free public use; otherwise, you should assume that images on the internet are protected by copyright, and using them without obtaining a license from the owner is an infringement of federal copyright law.

Even paid image-sharing sites and stock photos can create copyright issues. If you use a photo from a creative commons site, be sure to keep a record of the creative commons license and comply with its terms. Many free-image sites require or request that you give attribution to the image creator, and if you fail to do so, it may be argued that you don’t have a license. Sometimes, the terms of use of free or paid images can be limited; so make sure you are purchasing the picture for as wide a use as you need it. For example, do you need to modify it for use in marketing, generate income from it, etc.?

Believe it or not, copyright infringers are easily caught. For one thing, a reverse image search can be easily conducted via Google images: anyone can simply upload an image and run Google searches the web for similar images. More sophisticated image owners use search programs to continuously scan the web for copies. If you’re using copied images, you will likely be caught.

The risk isn’t worth it: there’s a growing trend of copyright enforcement actions. For example, Richard Bell, an Indiana attorney who took a photo of the Indianapolis skyline, has found about 300 copyright infringers—most of whom have settled for about $1,500 each. You do the math; that was a valuable photo. In one case, Bell sued an Indianapolis lawyer for $150,000. You can Google “Richard Bell skyline” to see the image.


The best protection against copyright infringement damages is to simply use your own images; naturally, you cannot violate the copyright on your own images, because they are your copyrighted materials. If you have photography done, be sure you are purchasing the license to use the images in any way you wish. If you use images on the web, be very careful: make sure you have appropriate licenses, keep detailed records, and give appropriate attribution to the image author as required. Don’t hesitate to ask for legal advice if you’re not sure an image is safe to use, or if you need help keeping track of the licensing requirements. Carelessness may open your organization up to a significant amount of liability.


Featured Image by Rebecca Sidebotham.

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations