— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney

One aspect commonly associated with building and maintaining a business is the company website. Establishing an online presence can be an important tool for connecting with customers. While website creation can be a delightful distraction for some and perhaps a frustrating obligation for others, platforms such as WordPress and Squarespace make it relatively simple for company owners to design and run their own websites. A business may choose to broaden its online presence even further with social media networking and blogging. On any of these platforms, businesses may wish to incorporate images into the design. Unfortunately, the Internet’s open atmosphere renders unknowing copyright infringement an easy trap.

Despite the ease of downloading images from a Google image search, businesses must be especially careful in using images found from other sources. Images on the Internet, just like photographs and artworks, are subject to copyrights. The owner of the image generally has the right to prevent others from making or distributing copies, including digital copies. Even if the image appears in a Google or other images search, it is usually not freely available to download a copy or paste it on a different website. Of course, there are exceptions:

  • Options such as Creative Commons allow image owners to make their images available to others for limited uses and for free or for nominal licensing fees. This can be a great source for finding usable images.
  • Fair use is a legal defense to copyright infringement, which provides that copyrighted material may be used for such purposes as criticism and comment. The doctrine is limited, and typically does not apply where the alleged infringer is using the material for commercial purposes.

Aside from these exceptions, use of an image found on the Internet, without the owner’s permission, typically infringes the owner’s copyright. Since the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), image owners have a useful tool at their disposal for addressing infringing copies. The DMCA provides for “takedown notices,” which a copyright owner may submit to an Internet service provider, requesting that the infringing copy be removed. (See one attorney’s account of her own experience submitting a DMCA takedown notice to Google.) In other cases, a copyright owner may choose to send a cease and desist letter, or in some cases even a demand for licensing fees, leading to what some refer to as copyright bullying.

The intersection of copyright law and the Internet is often difficult to define. For this very reason, many argue for a relaxing of copyright laws with respect to online content. However, for at least the time being, an awareness of the potential copyright issues may in some cases help prevent them.