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Jun 15 2010

Caution: Your Website Images May Be Illegal!

One of the other websites I am associated with   extortionletterinfo.com,  is devoted to the issue of digital imagery on the web and the copyright attached to them.  A number of the world’s largest digital image warehouses, notably Getty Images, Masterfile and Corbis, have begun asserting claims for images controlled by them and used by others. What happens normally is that a web developer is hired to create a website and uses Google Images or  a template site to find images to decorate the site with.  You know those non-descript images:  two business men shaking hands, a woman talking on the phone, maybe a picture of  a happy family. That developer does not know or does not care that those images actually belong to somebody who has copyright in the image.  The developer then slaps the image on your site and collects  a fee for his services.

The website owner then receives demand letters from one or more of these companies seeking  hundreds and often thousands of dollars in damages per image because their little robot found the images on the owner’s website.  Imagine being asked to pay a thousand dollars for a thumbnail low-res image  of a fire hydrant or something equally as mundane. Well, it is happening everyday.

Through my website I have represented approximately 500 small and midsize businesses who have been besieged by these claims.  I won’t elaborate on the defenses we assert or how our letter defense program has helped those companies; you can visit the site to learn all of that in detail if it interests you.  Here’s the  link:  http://extortionletterinfo.com/   And if you develop websites for a living, then it should definitely interest you.

But if your business or hobby involves having a website then you need to be aware that some of the images on the site may not be permissible to use  on your site and need to be taken down.  In fact, unless you took the image yourself, paid a photo licensing company a fee for using the image or used a government website that has public domain images,  no image should be considered safe to use.  The worst part of this issue is that there is technically no defense to copyright infringement; it is a strict liability claim.  It is not a defense that you did not know the image was copyrighted; that the image had no copyright notice or no watermark; that a third party (like a web developer) got the image for you; or that you were never asked to take the image down before being sued or receiving a claim letter.   Once the imaging company establishes that they have the exclusive right to license the image, the only issue left is: What are the Damages?

That does not mean that all hope is lost if you end up receiving a claim letter from one of these companies.  I have resolved  almost all  of the 500 claims without litigation and to my clients’ satisfaction; many of them did not pay a penny and almost all of them that did settle, settled for substantially less than they were sued for.

But it is a hassle and there are  costs associated with defending the claim.  So that is why it is better to be safe than sorry.  Know where your images come from. Make sure you have the right to use it on your website. And if you aren’t sure, then take the image down!

2 comments

  1. Marie

    Just found your article. I would love to hear about your fight for the individual photographer that is not associated with a stock agency whose images are stolen for commercial use by companies( small, middle and large companies). Copyright infringement affects the individual photographer who deserves to have revenue recovery.

  2. Oscar Michelen

    Dear Marie: We have had several cases brought on behalf of photographers who have had photos taken and used commercially without their permisssion. For example, right now we are handling one where a photographer’s picture of a model was used significantly in an episode of Seinfeld without his permission and without accreditation. What makes it hard for individual photogrpahers to brign these actions is that usually the improper use will nto result in enough damages to merit filing a Federal copyright lawsuit. If you have a specific issue you are dealing with and want some guidance, you can contact me through my lawfirm’s email at omichelen@cuomollc.com. Thanks for posting!

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