Photos Posted Online Can Appear in Unexpected Places

Is it okay for a company to take an image found on the Internet and freely utilize it for commercial purposes? Probably not. Although the Internet certainly makes it easy to post, share and download pictures, this online content is not necessarily free for the taking. Unfortunately, many companies do help themselves.

In today’s reality programming environ, candid images are in demand by many advertisers and publishers. Additionally, it’s just easy to take a photo from the Internet and forget to attribute it or check the licensing rights. Consider the following examples from The Washington Post’s article, “Hey, Isn’t That….”

· Virgin Mobile’s national ad campaign in Australia was launched with a 15-year-old’s photo found on the photo-sharing site, Flickr. Virgin Mobile was sued by the photographer and the 15-year old’s family.

· An online parenting magazine took an image from a photo-sharing site and used it in a story without permission and with the possibility that readers could falsely assume the child in the image was related to the story. The child’s father, an intellectual property lawyer, contacted the magazine and the photo was removed.

· A blogger for a Microsoft-run site posted a photographer’s picture at a tech convention on its own blog without crediting the photographer. The Microsoft blogger later apologized.

The availability of online photos, with more amateurs posting their photos and more companies taking advantage of their availability, creates more opportunity for litigation; however, improper use of images is not new. We’ve previously covered a couple instances on our own blog. There was the teacher / ex-model who came face-to-face with his own image while shopping the coffee aisle of his grocery store. And, similar to the online parenting magazine incident mentioned above, there was the girl whose image was used in conjunction with a newspaper article about promiscuous teens.

Additionally, consider this photo-related claim example for a website owner: An online retailer re-designed its website and within days after taking the new site live was sued by a competitor who alleged the online retailer used photos in the new web design that were taken from the competitor’s website. The online retailer attributed the problem to a web design vendor apparently taking the photos without its knowledge. (The photos were of products that would not be distinguishable at a glance, so at a casual look the online retailer didn’t notice that the photos weren’t its own. But on careful analysis, the photos could be identified as identical to those of the competitor.) The case cost well into six figures.

Taken together, all of the examples above show how many kinds of businesses can get into trouble on this front and why a large variety of businesses need to be aware of and manage this type of risk. One key element of managing the risk involves obtaining the appropriate rights and licensing permissions for the photos used. There are a variety of types of licenses utilized by photographers. These can include rights-managed, royalty-free and the one most popular on the photo-sharing sites, Creative Commons. Creative Commons is an organization that provides tools for persons to license their work. The licenses can come in several different levels, so it’s important to note which type of license applies to the photo. To learn more about Creative Commons, visit Creative Commons.org. In addition to being aware of how photo licensing works, it might also be wise to refrain from posting photos online if having the pictures appear in unexpected places is undesirable.