copyright law

It’s entirely possible you’ve put yourself in expensive danger with your blog.

As a conscientious content creator in an age of visual content marketing, you’ve made it a point to use copyright-free images on your blog. You never hop into a Google image search and grab an image. You pay for stock images. You are careful to use only Creative Commons imagery from Flickr. You always attribute.

Heck, if you’re doing that, you’re way ahead of many bloggers. But you still aren’t completely safe.

Yes, it boggles the mind.

Copyright Protection And Enforcement

I’m a visual artist. I have art, photographs, and cartoons that I put online. There is value in copyright protection, and I would never argue that those of us who create images shouldn’t expect some return, even if all we ask is for attribution and the ability to say who and how it is used.

Not everyone feels this way, though, so about 95 percent of the time I remember to put a (C) Julie R Neidlinger and my website URL on each image before making it available online. I learned, back in 2003 and early in my blogging career, that it was necessary. At least when (not if, but when) my images were “borrowed” people would know who they belonged to. At least then, when BuzzFeed and the Today show use an image, people know who created it.

While the onous is on the copyright owner to go after infringers, I have never been aggressive about it. Only three times have I contacted a the owner of a web site and asked them to pull something, and they have always cooperated. It’s not uncommon to have someone tell you they’re “doing you a favor” by giving your images greater exposure to a new audience, but they get the benefit from your stolen images, not you. That’s the honest truth.

This, mind you, was before Pinterest and social media.

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Orphaned images are even more common now, those images that have been cherry picked, downloaded, direct-linked and cropped (yes, people would crop the (C) off of my images, if you can imagine it) so that all context and apparent ownership is removed.

It is very difficult for copyright owners, especially small creators like myself, to track down and enforce copyright. It takes a lot of time and money. And this makes it almost impossible for you to know, based on whether an image is watermarked or carries the (C), if it really is copyright-free or someone just cropped it off of the image.

In recent years, the internet has become a huge playground for copyright trolls, entities (usual law firms or large companies, and not individual creators protecting their own work) looking to threaten bloggers with questionable claims. They seem to have all the time and money in the world. Many bloggers settle out of fear of a larger lawsuit.

We’re left with trolls scaring the bloggers, big companies dominating the images available, and hard-working artists and photographers struggling to contain the incorrect and unfair use of their images. Copyright law on the internet is a mess.

But mess or not, you–as a content creator–absolutely must care.

What Should You Do About Images?

Take a bit of time to watch this video of Lizelle Brandt from Singianlaw.com talk about images and copyright (and other legal issues) for bloggers in this 2013 video.

If you’re like me, you saw that and immediately thought “I’ve been blogging for a long time–I have no idea if I did something wrong years ago!”

I was prompted to do something immediately. I was terrified that a copyright troll would find me and run off with my life savings for a silly photo I used in a post seven years ago. That might have been an overreaction, but it spurred me to do something.

How about you? Are you ready for a real plan of action? Most posts talking about copyright issues suggest things like “be careful” and “be aware of this” but I want you to go a step further if you’re able: make changes to your site and your habits ASAP.

1. Clean House Now

On my personal blog, after seeing that video, I promptly hopped into my WordPress image gallery to find any suspect images. I’ve had my blog for a long time, and I knew that a lot had changed over the past decade in how I used images in the early years compared to how I use them now in this age of copyright trolling.

The WordPress image gallery makes this very easy. It shows a thumbnail of each image, which post it is used on, and if it’s even being used at all.

copyright images

I found every image I knew wasn’t of my creation. If it was not attached to a post any more, I deleted it. If it was attached to a post, I hopped into the post to see how it was used and what would make a good replacement. Most of these were older posts.

  1. If the post wasn’t spectacular or getting much traffic, I just removed the entire post and set the URL to forward using my .htaccess file.
  2. If there was no image in the body of the post, but only as a featured image, I removed the featured image.
  3. I created a spreadsheet that had the URL of the post that was now missing a featured image. I noted what kind of image I removed, and what I thought I ought to replace it with.
  4. If the image was likely in public domain (a painting from several hundreds of years ago, for example) I made sure it was attributed and linked to the source.

This left me with some work to do, yes, but also a spreadsheet that had workable items that I could chip away at a bit each day.

I found replacement images in my own art, photography, or created some from scratch. Some of the posts were quite old, not terribly valuable, and that’s why I kept open the option to delete them entirely rather than fuss trying to find replacement images. I was pleased that it wasn’t as bad as I had thought; generally I was pretty good about not using images that weren’t mine.

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2. Consider A Robot File

I’ve done something for years, and it’s not going to make me seem like a team player. In fact, it might make some people downright angry with me. But here it is: I use the robots.txt file to block the Internet Archive/Wayback Machine from indexing my site.

Except for two brief periods since 2000, my website has always used that file. Call me an ignorant, uniformed, and possessive webmaster if you must, but I don’t intend to change my mind. At the time, I didn’t want anyone to have a record of my site other than me (and I do have all versions of my site saved on a harddrive for my eyes only).

After watching Lizelle Brandt’s video, I was glad I had done it, for there is no record of the images I had used, and no record for how long images have been on my site and I felt I could have a fighting chance at cleaning things up.

3. Use Screenshots And Custom Images

Garrett does our great graphics for some posts. I’m an “old school” artist so I always turn to pen and ink, and have a small watercolor set in my desk. That, along with screenshots and our own photos, are where the graphics on our blog posts mostly come from.

Because imagery is so important online, you feel the pressure to come up with some kind of graphic for every post. That’s where something like Canva comes in, a great service that easily lets you easily create beautiful graphics that you can use for your content.

4. Build Your Own Private Stock Photo Collection

On my own blog, I decided to actively build my own stock photography collection.

I sat down and listed what themes and concepts would make good “stock” imagery to have on hand for the topics I generally wrote about. Then I thought of what image might depict that concept:

  • Starting and stopping. Stop lights, stop sign, yield sign, new plants in spring, cemetery gate, dried leaves on the ground in fall, runner’s feet at starting line, sunrise/sunset, spring imagery, winter imagery, etc.
  • Creativity. Art supplies, pens, paper, sketchbooks, charcoal dust, light bulb, new plant in dirt, etc.
  • Blogging/writing. Typewriter, pencil, paper, handwriting on paper, computer keyboard, etc.
  • Difficulties in life. Alley with overhead wires, knot in shoelace, rain puddle reflecting red stop light, shadows of trees or other objects, etc.

This is just a small taste of the list I compiled. I had quite a few categories by the time I was done. I then broke it down into the types of images (urban, sunny day, rural, local) so that it would be easier to for me to plan when and where I’d take photos.

I’m always on the look out for an interesting image, and I often use my smartphone to take these photos when I’m out and about during my regular day. Some weekends I take my digital SLR camera specifically to go hunting for photos. Whenever I travel, people think I’m a bit of a nutter because I take photos of things like doorknobs, brick walls, and chains.

To keep my photos interesting, I try to take what I call “prepositional” photographs. That is, I take close-up photos from different angles with prepositional phrases in mind: on, above, beside, over, under, and so on. I want them to be interesting. You have fairly free rein and rights over what you can do with your own photography, but there are some limitations:

Avoid photos of people. You need model releases (see #7 below). A huge crowd where faces are all but indistinguishable might be fine, but I generally try to keep identifiable people out of photos.

Not all buildings and open spaces are fair game for photography. For example, did you know you can’t take a photo of the Sydney Opera House and use it any old way you want? That the Eiffel Tower’s nighttime light show is copyrighted, and your photo of it has limited uses? There are just some things you can’t take photos of, places you can’t use a camera, and photos you can take but have limited use of because of the subject itself.

I am not a professional photographer. My photos will never be as good as a professional, and I’m not trying to take away their business. But for my personal blog, it’s the most affordable and safe way to be sure my images are mine, and it’s actually a lot of fun.

If this sounds like a lot of work, hire a professional photographer to do the same.

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5. Use Purchased Stock Images Wisely

I’ve already talked about why we moved away from using stock images, but this isn’t always possible for everyone. You might not have a designer or artist on your team.

If you do choose to use stock images, only use royalty free stock images. Royalty free has nothing to do with whether you paid money for them or not. Instead it means that once you have permission to use the image, whether you pay money or through some other arrangement, you then are able to use the image as many times as you want without having to pay royalties for each use. Some stock images are not royalty free, so even if you pay for them, you have limited use of them.

Many people swear by certain free stock photo sites, but upon reading the terms you might be surprised at the limitations put on the images.

Just keep in mind that there are many royalty-free stock image sites that do not all have the same terms of service. Read their license before using the images. Find out what is required as far as attribution, if you can manipulate the images, or if they can be used commercially.

Here are a few common places people turn to for copyright-free public domain images, but be aware that there are still restrictions and that you cannot just grab and use an image carelessly, even from these sources.

6. Don’t Trust Creative Commons Licenses

Flickr is the go-to place for many bloggers looking for images.

They find the Creative Commons licensed images, and their clear intent is to do the right thing. They choose an image from a collection, they attribute, and then they are horrified to learn that the image was one the Flickr user didn’t have permission to upload in the first place.

I have used images from there in the past, but I generally try to look at the user’s full image sets to see if it makes sense that that image is there. Is it part of a set of vacation photos? Is it of a dog that continually shows up in the collection? Is it an art image that fits with the rest of the work shown? Essentially, I’m trying to get a feel for whether or not that photo belongs in the collection, or if it is just too slick and stock for the rest of the images. If it feels out of place, I skip it.

But that is still guessing, isn’t it? How much do you trust that Flickr user?

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7. Avoid Using Copyright Free Images Of People

Photos of people are tricky.

Unless I paid money for them from a stock photo supplier where my use clearly fits the terms, stay away from using people, particularly children. Using photos of people means getting a model release, written permission to use their image, even if it seems like a fair-sized crowd.

Even if it’s your own photo, maybe taken at one of your own events, be careful. Unless you’ve posted signs that indicate photography will be happening, or had people sign a release to give permission to be photographed, you’re opening yourself up to possible legal action. Theoretically, a photo taken of a person in a public place is usable, but it varies from country to country and really, I wouldn’t chance it.

We like to look at photos of people more than anything, but sometimes it’s better to be safe and find images that don’t show people’s faces.

8. Understand Trolls, Threats, And Letters

I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not going to give you a bit of legal advice. My take is this: If a creator asks you to pull down their image, do it. If a scary letter asks you to pay up, talk to your lawyer. Not all letters are legitimate.

Getty Images is infamous for sending out a letter demanding payment for improper image use, so much so that there is a website dedicated to that letter. They are aggressive in pursuing image copyright infringement. Some say Getty wants to control all online images, pointing to the acquisition of previously public-domain sites and popular stock photo sites, suggesting that part of their business model is purely collecting off of copyright infringement. Some bloggers are adamant that you should avoid using any Getty image (and they are everywhere) because they are so aggressive. But that’s not really a solution, is it? It misses the point.

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Theoretically, any copyright holder could behave in a similar fashion, so I would say that rather than having your plan be one of “just avoid Getty”, you should avoid abusing copyrights completely. Most importantly, you’re hurting those who have created the image when you abuse copyrights. And if that doesn’t sway you, then you’re gambling on whether or not you’ll be caught. With image-scanning software and simple reverse image searches, you will be caught.

The safest thing is to always be sure you are using an image according to terms. Because this is all so confusing it really is much easier and safer to create your own imagery.

None of this blog post is intended as actual legal advice. These are mere suggestions of things you could do to address the issue of how you are using images on your blog. If you have legal questions, those are best directed to your lawyer.

What do you do to make sure your images abide by copyright law on your blog?