A lot of people on the internet are starting to become familiar with copyright laws.
They know, for example, that you are not supposed to save and use a picture from someone else’s website.
Sure, theft of images online is pretty rampant. But honest business owners avoid copyright claims by writing their own web copy and blogs, and buying licenses from stock phone companies.
Or they use images listed on Google or the public commons wiki with permissive use licenses.
Using images with commons license can save you a little bit of money. But you want to make sure you read the license grant and know what you are allowed to do with the image. Sometimes they exclude commercial uses (and if you are in business, you are a commercial use).
Copyrights, though, are not the only issues that arise when you put pictures on your website (or any digital or print products).
Advertising laws, for example, can be triggered. Does your image imply a promise of something that is not true?
People in the health, nutrition, financial and self-improvement areas are prone to fall into that trap. For example, if you are selling a vitamin and imply that someone will lose a ton of weight by a picture you include, without a claim being substantiated, you may find the FTC knocking on your door.
Same story if you are implying from a photo that people will make certain incomes from your product or service. Don’t promise incomes or cures for cancer, even by implication!
Just ask Kevin Trudeau. He’s in a Federal prison now….
If you use a celebrity’s image, they also have a property right in their “celebrity,” which they sell when they endorse a product. Using their image in a commercial setting, even with a disclaimer, could get you sued for big, big bucks.
Sometimes it is fair to use a public celebrity image, though. Do you know how to tell the difference between fair use and stealing their rights to their publicity?
Watch our video if you want to learn more about when a celebrity image is permissible and when it raises red flags.
Say you found a public domain picture of a celebrity on Google Images. Can you put their picture on your website?
If you are a news website and using their picture to discuss something newsworthy about them, then sure.
If you are a parody website and using their picture as part of a parody, then go ahead.
But if you are selling a product or service of any kind and thought their picture would help sell it, then no way.
You cannot imply in any way that a celebrity approves, uses or endorses your product without their express permission.
Have you ever received an award for your business or landed a great media mention? When that happens, a smart publicity strategy is to announce the award or media and put an “As Seen On” claim on your website.
But not so fast! Before you start pasting other company’s logos on your website, you better be sure that it isn’t a trademark or copyright violation. In other words, you need permission (a license) to do it.
Yes, a lot of people put these types of badges on their website. All that means is that a lot of people are potentially stealing copyrighted and trademarked images out of ignorance. The attitude that “everyone else is doing it” is a sure-fire way of getting yourself into hot water by stealing intellectual property unintentionally.
That being said, there are many times you can include another company’s logo or copyrighted work on your website, ads, or emails. Getting permission is oftentimes free and requires just a little bit of effort.
With smaller companies, the easiest way to get permission is to just ask. Some will ask you to purchase a license. Some will just say, “OK” and that will be it. Some will direct you to rules and digital downloads they have for their “assets.” Some companies have specific rules on how their assets are used and presented, and you should respect that. Their permission for your use depends on you sticking to their parameters.
Certain companies (and media in particular) will put their logos out for public use on a creative commons license, or on a restricted, royalty-free license for commercial use. So, for example, NBC’s logo is available by a creative commons license (meaning that it can be used broadly and it is registered with non-profits to make their rules easy to figure out).
Similarly, Facebook allows (and in fact encourages) you to use their logo, even for commercial purposes, under a very broad, royalty-free license. Facebook wants you to link people to your profiles using their badge so that you will drive people to their website.
Not only do big companies offer Creative Commons licenses for their works and logos, authors and the government may do this as well. You can sometimes even modify and expand upon the licensed work, depending on the permissions granted.
Two places you can check for Creative Commons licenses include Wikimedia.org and CreativeCommons.org. Both websites are private non-profits set up for this very purpose, and can be considered reputable.
Next, to some degree, use of images for parody (even in a commercial video) is considered protected free speech. Similarly, images and quoted or excerpted media for newsworthy sites may be protected “fair use” under the First Amendment. This can be a complicated area of law, so be sure to check with your lawyer if you are a media or entertainment site. All other businesses should generally just try to stay away from anything that is not expressly licensed.
Finally, you should have instructions somewhere in your Terms of Service for people to contact you with “take down” requests. This gives you a safe harbor time period to deal with any disputes before the claiming party can file a lawsuit.
If you ever have a question about a particular image, you should ask a lawyer. It’s better to be safe than sorry. We offer our clients entry into our Peace of Mind Plan — for a small, monthly fee, they can call us with all their legal questions and get the help they need.
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Alicia I. Dearn is the founder of Bellatrix PC, a woman-owned law firm with offices in Missouri and California. Bellatrix PC handles lawsuits and business transactions. We advise in business, employment, real estate, intellectual property, civil litigation, and election law.
The articles published by Bellatrix PC are for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. If you have a legal issue, please get competent advice from a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction. Use of Bellatrix PC's site is subject to our Attorney Advertising Disclaimers.