Disclaimer: The contents of this article are meant as a guide only, and should not be construed as expert legal advice on copyright law. Any specific questions about copyright and intellectual property rights should be referred to a lawyer with expertise in United States copyright law. Copyright laws differ slightly from country to country, so a lawyer familiar with International copyright laws may also be required.
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Imagine you are working on a project for a major client. You’ve spent days getting the design just right and now you’re looking for that perfect image to make the project complete. You search through your image library, but nothing feels right. You try image after image, but they all fail to meet your expectations.
We’ve all been there. Like most designers, you probably turn to the Internet. A quick Internet search yields the perfect image for your project. You visit the website, download the image, and turn your finished project over to the client. The client is happy, your boss is happy, and life couldn’t be better, right?
Wrong. You forgot something.
That image you downloaded and used in your project belongs to someone else. You had no legal right to use that image and now you, your company, and your client find yourselves in court for violating someone’s intellectual property rights.
But the image was on the Internet, so it’s free for anyone to use, right?
Wrong again. Unless the image is in the public domain, any image posted to the Internet is automatically protected by United States copyright law, with or without a copyright notice. Even sharing that image on your Facebook page without permission is a violation of the author’s legal rights. While some claims of copyright violation are more difficult to enforce than others, any legal trouble can mean bad news for a designer. Your company may survive a lawsuit, but your job and reputation likely will not.
So how do you avoid this type of situation?
The first thing you can do is avoid using images found in an Internet search. While some of these images are either public domain or specially licensed for commercial work, most are not. A better approach is to subscribe to a stock photo service such as iStock or Shutterstock. Services such as these allow almost unrestricted use of their photos for either a monthly fee or a per-photo fee.
If money is an issue, there are many sites which offer free photos, but the image quality and resolution is usually not the same as those found through a subscription service. Sites like morgueFile and Wikimedia Commons offer free access to thousands of photos, many of which are restriction-free or require only that you provide attribution to the photographer. Also, with the exception of government trademarks and logos, images created by an officer or employee of the United States government as part of that person’s official duties are not subject to copyright.
The most important thing to keep in mind is to pay attention to an image’s license. Many artists have licensed their work with a Creative Commons license, allowing others to use their photos with specific restrictions. If you can’t find an image’s license, you should probably assume it is not available for use.