In the past few weeks the internet has been abuzz with stories about PIPA and SOPA – two proposed laws in the US which were designed to stop people stealing and reselling copyrighted material – especially films. Trouble is, they would also have the effect of turning the average person into lawbreaker if all they did was link to an online video on Facebook, post some song lyrics on their blog or mention Batman anywhere.
Fortunately it seems that the law-makers in the US enjoy a ‘Family Guy’ clip as much as the rest of us, so SOPA and PIPA are being rethought – and hopefully they will be rethought out of existence.
Copyrights and Wrongs
However, the issue of copyright is an incredibly important one, as there is a huge amount of copyrighted material out there on the internet, and anyone running an online business has to be very vigilant in order to not accidentally break the licensing terms of that content. The main area where businesses get it wrong is with images.
We’ve all been there. We have written a page for our website but it’s looking a bit plain. Perhaps an image will spruce it up. So where do you go first for images? Google Images of course.
You see, there’s a company out there called Getty Images who own most of the images which you see out there in newspapers and magazines. They manage the licensing of all the images in their library, and then make sure the photographer gets paid when their image is used. Online, if someone has paid for a Getty image and uses it correctly, then it’ll say ‘© Getty’ somewhere near the image or on the page.
Google and Getty – a Dangerous Combination
This is all very well, until Google Image Search came along. Because when you see an image on Google, you don’t necessarily have to look at the original page. You can just save it to your computer – and bam! You have a nice image for your page, and you’ve just broken the licensing terms for the image. And it gets worse, because now the image on your site will show up on Google and anyone else can take a look, see there’s no copyright information, and then use it for their site too. And they will also be in breach of the licensing terms.
Big Brother Is Watching
Now, you might think Getty has got better things to do than follow up on every blogger and small business that accidentally uses an image incorrectly. But you’d be wrong. Getty have a whole farm of servers somewhere in the world, and all they do all day and night is trawl through every image on every website checking to see if it has similarity to images in their library. Then when they get a match, another bank of printers churns out a letter sent out the owner of the domain asking them to pay for using the image. And the sums they ask for are around £600-£800 per image. It’s not good enough to just remove the image – they will still demand payment.
Is this legal? Sort of. The image does belong to them, and you are using it without permission. Is it ethical? Definitely not – 99 times out of 100 if someone uses a licensed image it’ll be because they didn’t realise it was licensed. If you take it down, it should be enough. And the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 agrees with this:
Where in an action for infringement of copyright it is shown that at the time of the infringement the defendant did not know, and had no reason to believe, that copyright subsisted in the work to which the action relates, the plaintiff is not entitled to damages against him, but without prejudice to any other remedy.
This basically means ‘Getty can’t claim legal damages, but this doesn’t mean they can’t still ask for money’.
To date, Getty have only taken a dozen or so people to court for using images without permission, but these are people who are using large numbers of images, not just one or two. Will they take you to court? Probably not as the cost of going to court far exceeds the likely remuneration they could get. But the experience of having a large corporation sending you a letter telling you that you owe them money and they might take you to court for it is a nasty and stressful experience.
The only way to avoid these issues is to never use an image you find on Google. Instead go to a stock photo library like www.dreamstime.com or www.bigstockphoto.com. It’s a few quid for each image, but much more preferable to nasty threatening letters from big scary corporations.