What follows is a real life example of what can happen if you use images from the Internet that you shouldn’t be using. No, this didn’t happen to me. But it could happen to anyone that uses images on a web site / blog.
Improper use of copyrighted material is a big problem on the Internet. It never ceases to amaze me how many people think, “Well, I found it on the Internet, so it is free to use.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. As one that has had their content stolen (yes, it is stealing) countless times, I understand well the frustration that ensues when content is stolen.
Below is a letter someone I know received from Masterfile Corporation. Masterfile is “in the business of licensing rights-managed images for commercial reproduction and publication”. And they are none too pleased at the improper use of a copyrighted image on a web site (identifying information has been redacted):
If you’d rather not read the entire letter, here is the Cliffs Notes version:
Masterfile found a copyrighted image on a website, an image for which no licensing fee had been paid. They are demanding removal of the image and payment of a “retroactive licensing fee” of $4,020. This offer is in lieu of continuing legal remedies. i.e: pay us or we may sue you.
Yep, four grand AND removal of the photo.
So what happened here?
Was this site designed by someone other than the owner? Where did they (or the designer) find the image? What if they found the image somewhere and there was no copyright notice?
We don’t know the answers to those questions, but those answers don’t matter.
“My designer did it!” is not a defensible excuse. YOU as the site owner are responsible for the content on your site whether you put it there or not.
“It wasn’t labeled with a copyright mark!” Doesn’t matter. The owner of the image (or text, video, whatever) doesn’t have to mark anything or even have to “file” for copyright to be protected under copyright laws.
“But it’s on the Internet, so it’s free for the taking since it is in the ”˜public domain’!” Wrong again. There are very specific rules that must be met for a work to be considered to be in the public domain (here is a great article from the University of California on public domain).
The bottom line is this. You should assume anything on the Internet is protected by copyright. That means text, images, graphics, videos – anything. Unless something is clearly marked as being public domain, or Creative Commons Licensed, just don’t use it.
And be very careful with Creative Commons (CC) licensed material. Not all CC licenses are created equal. The biggest mistake, by far, that I see people making when they use CC licensed content is they aren’t using material licensed for commercial use. You may not think of your real estate blog as being “commercial” use but it is. After all, you are trying to make money with it, aren’t you? Your blog is one big giant advertisement for your services. That’s commercial use folks. The second most common mistake when using CC material is lack of or improper attribution (actually, that holds true with not just CC licensed material. If you quote something under copyright fair use, CC license, whatever, you should properly attribute the source).
Be careful out there folks…
Image Credit: Lumaxart on Flickr. CC Licensed. Thanks Gold Guys!
Alex Tooke says
Important information for all of us Bloggers out there… I know I have been guilty of this in the past and have had to start taking my own photos just to save some money here and there!
Jay Thompson says
Taking your own images is by far the safest route Alex! I’d upload them to Flickr (or some photo sharing site) and put the CC license of your choice on them.
Grant Hammond says
People steal images from me all the time, I have sort of gotten used to it and now, even find it a little flattering when I am tooling around the Internet and see my watermark on someone else’s site!
Jay Thompson says
Grant – people tell me all the time that I should be flattered that people find my content good enough to steal, and I hear a lot of people say “it’s flattering” when it happens to them.
I heard an analogy once, I wish I could remember where. It goes like this… if someone broke into your home and stole your television, would you find it flattering if the thief said, “But it was such a nice TV….”
Great article. I’m a professional photographer AND designer, so I’ve been on both sides of this issue in the sense that I’ve had my own photo copyright infringed and have had to explain, patiently, to my clients that I cannot just grab photos off the internet for free use in their projects.
A couple of years ago, a photography client of mine called me to read me the riot act about the use of a photo I had taken of her. Turns out, the photo was stolen off my Flickr site by the STATE HEALTH DEPARTMENT here in my state, and used on a brochure that they distributed widely. After a crabby back and forth with the person in charge, who insisted they had found the photo on a “free photo website,” but could never prove it, I escalated by complaint to the governor’s office. Within a WEEK my invoice for $2,000 was happily paid in full. Mind you, I contacted a lawyer about this, and his suggestion was that I ask for $600 or so. I’m glad I ignore the advice and kept pursuing the matter. So yes, BE CAREFUL!
Paul Donoghue says
Good counsel, Jay; but I can’t help but feel that Masterfile’s approach is more like extortion. After a brief search, it looks like there’s a few of the photo aggregators using a similar approach.
On a positive note, it appears that there’s a “Robin Hood” or two offering legal assistance, defending the recipients. Check out http://extortionletterinfo.com/, a site established by an outraged recipient of a similar letter from Getty and a law professor from New York Law School, who claims to have in excess of 500 companies he defending from similar inflated claims.
Bottom line, I like your advice … “just don’t use it.” Paul
Bob Hertzog says
Jay, the timing of this post couldn’t have been better. Two days ago, I found that an agent in Chandler actually hijacked one of my listings. Once it went to Pending status, he copied my photos from the MLS and posted it as his listing at Homes & Land. They then syndicated it out to Zillow, Trulia, Yahoo RE, etc. In doing so, it bumped my listing out, and replaced it with his. Come to find out, Zillow was reporting that he has 355 listings with them. Funny, because MLS shows him as listing 20 or so homes in the past 2 years.
To make a long story short, Homes & Land and Zillow not only took down all of “his” listings, but Zillow completely eliminated his profile as well. Still waiting to see what Trulia does, but they are working on it.
Anyway, I wrote a blog post about it yesterday on AR if you care to read it. I won’t put the link here (hate when others do that in my comments), but you’ll know where to find it.
Thanks again for posting this valuable information!
Jay Thompson says
Wow. That’s right up there with one of the smarmiest sales “tactics” I’ve ever seen. I sincerely hope you file a formal ethics complaint against this guy.
If anyone is interested, Bob’s post is here. http://activerain.com/blogsview/2367688/john-vollmecke-at-west-usa-realty-are-you-really-this-desperate-
Diane Brennan says
Thanks for the info. Can we use photobucket.com?
Jay Thompson says
Dave Kinkade says
What I don’t understand is why anyone would knowingly take images that someone else owns or created. If it is an innocent mistake then people should be reasonable BUT when people knowingly steal images I don’t think it is any different than stealing your sign in front of a house you’ve listed. If they wouldn’t dream of stealing your yard sign, why would they steal your images without a second thought?
John Evan Miller says
This same thing just happened at a university I know of–a fraternity at the college had a protected image on their website and the university was held responsible since they did not have a contract with the graphic designer that protected them from such liabilities. GREAT post.
Rob McCance says
Yikes, that’s a little scary, isn’t it?
Wonder if it’s a bluff.
Sean Pearson says
That will make you think twice.
a href=”http://www.EugeneFineHomes.com/”>Eugene Homes and Real Estate
Mark Gridley, eXp Realty TecKnowREagent says
At eXp Realty we’re having a major discussion on this topic Jay. I think you should come back to X-Camp and do a presentation. As more people start blogging they need to be educated to some of the pitfalls. Most of this thread just discusses Photos/Images. Let’s not forget that it also applies to music and sets.
We had a good question come up. If you think you have used a questionable image in the past, what is the best thing to do to rectify it?
Brett Tousley says
I find it less time consuming and more effective to register my website with the US Copyright Office.
I’m not sure extortion is the correct word to describe someone protecting their copyright. They are exercising their legal right to protect their work.
If anyone is planning on “flattering” someone by stealing their copyrighted material, you may want to read up on the subject a bit first? It’s much cheaper to just take your own pics and write your own content.
Read 504 (c) 1 & 2
Ben Fisher says
Great post thanks Jay. Good stuff to know for us real estate bloggers. I need to use my new Canon EOS more often.
Calloway Realty says
Jeez had no idea something that seems so insignificant could be so expensive. Definitely changing my blog photo finding practices. Do you think modification of the photo could be a loop hole?
Modify how, exactly? If you took one of my photos, and Photoshopped it to look different, that’s still copyright infringement. Period.
Here’s the thing: A lot of photographers out there on the net are happy to share imagery with people who *ask first.* I have a policy, for instance, that I freely give photos to non-profits that promote and support children’s causes, for instance. In other cases, I may ask for a nominal fee, depending on the situation (sold one-time rights to a photo to a very small band in Norway for $75 last month).
It’s ALWAYS BETTER TO JUST ASK. Hearing “No, you may not use it” or “Sure, for a fee” is always better than getting slapped with a bill or suit for infringement.
And anyway, stealing is wrong. Don’t take or modify someone else’s work.
Jay Thompson says
What Ana said. Why look for a “loop hole” anyway? Just properly use CC licensed images, buy/license them, or take/create your own.
Maybe it’d be helpful to not consider text and images as different. For the purposes of copyright, they aren’t. It’s not acceptable to take my written content and modify and use it. And it’s not acceptable to take an image and modify and use it.
You also have to be careful with modifying CC images. Some CC licenses allow for modification, some don’t.
Yep, Creative Commons is a great tool. Flickr is FILLED with CC licensed photos.
Liz Benitez says
Well, this has got me freaked out a little. I try and get my images from “free image sources” and most are digital art, but I am not always careful about reading the fine lines. Yikes
i have a doubt..
generally, is copying the image and uploading on a site illegal???
is placing a link of the image using tag with the src as link of image on other site illegal??
both of them are illegal??