I really wish I had a dollar for every time someone said to me: “I found it on the internet, so it must mean I can use it.” I would be a very wealthy woman!
No matter what people tell you and no matter what you think, this is not true. Never assume if you find something on the internet, you are free to use it as you like. Even if the image or content does not have a statement saying if you reproduce or use it, you can only do so with attribution to the owner.
A shock for Susan
Recently, a client I’ll call Susan (not her real name), received an infringement notice from lawyers of a US photographer. The photographer found one of their photographs had been used on Susan’s website and that it had not been purchased for use. The photographer’s lawyers were demanding a license fee, compensation for commercial use AND legal fees in the amount of a few thousand dollars.
Susan called me to discuss her issue. She said she found the image on the internet, there was no attribution requirement stated, no contact listed or intent to deceive. Therefore, she surely could not be held responsible? She also stated that as soon as she received the notice from the lawyers, she immediately took the image off her website.
Susan wanted to know if she still had to pay the fees and compensation the photographer’s lawyer were seeking.
The answer is yes. You, as a business owner, have an obligation to ensure that everything posted on your website is legal, correct, accurate and able to be owned or licensed to you for your intended commercial use.
What you can do to try and defend a claim for compensation
You can try to put the onus back on the person claiming the fees by lodging an argument that the image was found on a site (it was a Russian site in this instance) that stated it was free to use and that the owner of the image should be stopping this site from promoting the free use of their images. However, you are still ultimately responsible, as an owner of the website, to ensure you have the right to use the image. Just because you found it on a site that did not request fees or require licensing to be purchased does not mean the image is free to use and does not belong to anyone.
You can also query such things as the actual revenue claim amount that they are asking for as well as legal fees. You may not have made any money, or enough money to merit the claim. It may be that they do not have a right to claim a share or the amount of revenue they are seeking from you if you have not earned much.
It still may be that they are entitled to a license or other fee, irrespective of the argument you try to mount. As a business owner, you are responsible for and have an obligation in relation to everything on or sold through your website. This is true even if you are letting others sell goods or services through your website.
As more and more sharing of images and content without attribution is happening over the internet, more and more content creators, creative-photographers, writers and other professionals are seeking legal compensation for use of their work for breach of copyright. Misuse of copyright happens frequently on the internet and ignorance is not a defence.
You cannot ignore a letter of demand for compensation and should respond immediately.
In the end, Susan decided to not lodge any argument against the claims, paid the fines and fees and learned a valuable and expensive lesson. She did not want to go through the process and stress of defending her actions and decided it was a better idea to let it go and pay the compensation amount.
The moral of this story
Just because you find something on the internet, it is not necessarily free to use. Even if it states it is, you should do your due diligence to ensure it is able to be licensed or rights to use it are purchased by you. After all, wouldn’t you be upset to find your hard work copied on someone else’s site and used for their benefit and compensation?
Have you checked all the content on your website? Are you are using images that you own or have a license to use?