Just Because You Found it On the Internet, That Doesn’t Mean You Can Use It

Medical transcription for the Legal Profession touted by Lady Justice
Lady Justice as Created by and for Medical Transcriptionists

“I did a Google search and found it on the Internet” is a phrase uttered by clients that starts me shuddering.

And, it is the most common response I get when I ask a client how they got an image that they have sent me to use on their website, in their newsletter, or for other marketing materials.

We’re all so used to finding what we want on the Internet and using for it our own purposes that we’ve forgotten that artists and writers own what they produce.  Creative works in the United States are automatically protected by copyright laws.  At least that’s what I’ve read and have been told by real attorneys.

I am not a lawyer, and don’t play one on TV.  And, I also don’t want to be sued by a real lawyer.  So, I make it clear to my clients that when they give me something for their site, they are telling me that they have the right to use the image, graphic, text, or whatever.  And, when I recognize that it is highly unlikely that my client owns what they’ve sent me, I’ll ask them to confirm that they have the right to use the artistic work.

I think it’s fair that we use only the material we’ve either created, paid for, or have been given permission to use for some other reason.  It’s the right thing to do.

You’re Not Likely to Be Sued When Your Violate a Copyright

Of course, if you find something on the Internet that you like and you use it without permission, nothing bad is likely to happen.  This is common sense, and again, not a legal opinion!

  • It’s unlikely that the copyright owner is ever going to know what you’ve done.  When you’re a small business or organization, your theft will likely go undetected in the vastness of the Internet.  Ignorant owners are not going to sue.
  • In most cases, your theft causes no harm to the owner, so a violation isn’t going to cost you anything.  Even if the owner discovers what you’ve done, it’s unlikely that they have been injured financially or emotionally. And, if they haven’t been harmed, there are not damages for them to collect from you.  So, they are not going to sue.

Most likely, if your misappropriation is discovered, the copyright owner will write to you and ask you to delete their property from your web site, newsletter, or marketing piece.  If you honor their request, the incident will be over.

Of course, there’s always a chance your misappropriation could cost you reputation damage and a lot of money.  If your business should suddenly hit a social media bubble, the owner of something you put on your site could stumble on the theft.  If your sudden popularity caused sudden riches, you’d be juicier target for a copyright suit. And, it’s still wrong to steal!

What You Can Do

If you are looking for a nifty graphic for a space on your web site or other location, there are things you can do that are legal, moral, and relatively inexpensive:

Sequel and Vector among the poppies
Puppies and Poppies.
  1. Purchase images from a stock photo site.  I mostly use Dreamstime which has a lot of pictures and drawings available in a format suitable for the web for $1-$3.  Many of the images are licensed exclusively at Dreamstime and the site has more informal, natural looking pictures than the other stock photo sites I’ve investigated.
  2. Create your own work.  Many of the pictures I use for my clients are my own.  Photos of pretty women, babies, and pets grab readers’ attention and help get your material read.  Besides, I love seeing my dogs on websites and don’t charge extra when I show off Sequel or Vector!  (Isn’t the picture on the right too cute?!)
  3. Ask for permission.  If you see a photo you like, write the web site owner and ask if you can use the image.  Be clear that you cannot pay, if that’s the case.  Most people are flattered to have their photos admired, and you stand a good chance of getting approval.  Over the years I’ve allowed several non-profit organizations to copy my pictures for their use.  I was flattered to be asked!
  4. Fair use. This gets tricky, because I am still not a lawyer. But, there is concept of fair use that allows you to quote and to reprint the work of other people for specific, generally non-commercial, purposes.
  5. Link back, give credit, and talk up the owner.  This is even trickier and probably is a sub-set of “fair use” that a lawyer could explain.  It’s done frequently, with good intention, and without a problem.  An example of this type of copying is the image at the top of this post.  That lady justice is an original drawing by the staff of San Francisco Medical and Legal Transcriptionsist, Pacific Medical Transcription (PMT).  In this case I am showing the artwork in this blog, even though it lives on PMT’s web site.  The web site owner, an Ozdachs client, gets a link to her site with this mention (which will help her in Google searches).  Similar copying can be of book covers that link to the sales page at Amazon.com, product images which link to another online store, or reviews that link to the business being talked about.

So, you just cannot see a pretty picture and snag it for your web  page. But, there are plenty of easy, inexpensive or free ways to get the graphics you want your web visitors to see.

Contact Ozdachs if you need help with your web site and marketing materials!  We’d be happy to help.

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