Be Careful Sourcing Images from the Internet

Posted by Malone Allen on

An ongoing feud between CBS Interactive and a photojournalist exemplifies the risks of using photographs or other images on the internet without the proper permissions of the image’s owner.

In the latest development in this saga, CBS has sued the photographer – likely in retaliation to a similar lawsuit brought by the photographer against CBS earlier this year – for copyright infringement. CBS alleges that the photographer posted CBS’ copyright images to social media without CBS’ permission. CBS is seeking $150,000.00 in damages for willful copyright infringement. A copy of the case is accessible here, and a more thorough writeup of the history of the dispute is available from Ars Technica.

Putting aside the merits of either party’s claims, the suit demonstrates the inherent risks in reusing and publishing images on the internet. It is common for blog authors (including this one), advertisers, and content creators to use images they source from the internet for use in their own posts and content. But, given the sharing nature of the internet in the social media age, it is easy to forget that each of those images has an author and an owner of its own – one that could potentially claim copyright infringement for any unauthorized use of that image.

Digital content creators should carefully inspect the licensing restrictions imposed on images they source from the internet for their own work. Although the doctrine of fair use provides some leeway in the use of another’s copyrighted work in instances of parody, education, or commentary and criticism, that doctrine generally does not apply to a derivative commercial use of the original work.[1] If you are considering pulling an image from the internet to republish on your own website or social media for a commercial purpose, such as advertising, you should carefully inspect the licensing restrictions on that work to ensure you can use that image without an adverse claim from the owner.

To ensure you avoid these issues, the safest option is to source your images from image repositories of freely available images.  For example, Google Image Search’s advanced search options include the option to filter search results by “usage rights” – specifically, you can search only for images that are “free to use, share or modify, even commercially.” Any image found through those means should be free to use for whatever purpose you see fit. Alternatively, there are numerous stock photo repositories, some free and some paid, that offer similar options (such as Shutterstock, Flickr, Pixabay, iStock, and more). Next time you look to the internet to find an image for your own commercial content, be sure you avoid potential copyright problems by using an image that you have licensing rights to use.

[1] More information on the considerations of fair use can be found here, on the U.S. Copyright Office’s website.