How to Avoid Copyright Infringement

I just saw this happen over the weekend with a local non-profit rescue group that posted an ad using a photo taken by another local person that had been posted on social media. The woman was dismayed and a little put off by the fact that her shot had been used without her permission, and even more disturbing, wasn’t sure how they had obtained it. The group was embarrassed, apologized and removed the conversation from Facebook to hide their error. The ad is still running, however.

Not only was that move super creepy, but it should never have happened in the first place and is clear-cut copyright infringement.

Even if you are a cheap-ass startup with no budget for images, this does not give you permission to steal images off social media from regular people that may or may not notice that somehow they have obtained your property. Not cool, people. And yes, owners sometimes do reinforce this when they have proof that the images are theirs, especially if they are a struggling artist or designer.

What you CAN’T do.

Control idiots on the web. People are going to do whatever they think they can get away with. Pay attention and don’t feel bad about letting them know that it is illegal and ask them to remove it, or pay for the privilege of using your shot.

Use somebody’s image in an ad, billboard, flyer, brochure, website, or t-shirt design, without first obtaining written permission.

What you CAN do.

Take the high road. ASK if you want to use a shot that you found. Many people will be flattered, and if you give photo credit to them and/or a link to their website, they will be fine with the feature.

If you are using the photo for editorial purposes, an article or presentation, again, name your source, and it would be polite to let them know that their work was selected to help illustrate a point if you can find them. They might want to use your article as part of their portfolio.

Use a service such as Shutterstock, Adobe Stock or iStockphoto for inexpensive, usable copyright-friendly shots.

Work with a local photographer or student that needs to build up their portfolio. You should still pay them for their work and give them credit where possible.

If you are a pro photographer, always use a watermark that is big and annoying. It doesn’t eliminate everyone from stealing, but it will deter most idiots.

If you are an artist, and let’s face it, must post online to make a living in this day and age, here are some additional thoughts on how to keep people from stealing your stuff. It’s hard enough coming up with original material without people waiting to take it.

What can happen as a result.

Even stock houses are cracking down on this and do follow up with companies for buyer proof – years later – with the threat of a hefty fine or lawsuit if you cannot prove that you own the right to use the image. I’ve run into this twice, and digging into old files that are from before you were with the company is difficult, especially when the friendly legal dept is breathing down your neck.

If you hire someone to do social media on behalf of your company, be sure they understand that properly sourcing images are something that is trackable and must occur. This should be company policy and enforced.

This post is a bit ranty this morning, but I see this happening over and over again. Even people that should know better (CEOs, PhDs), somehow think it’s ok to steal images online.

Amanda MacDonald

Amanda MacDonald

Founder of Full Gallop Communications

Amanda is a marketing veteran that works with businesses on improving brand communication, marketing strategy, and creating content marketing. When not in the office, Amanda can be found at the barn with her horse, walking her two dogs on Lake Ontario or baking something carbtastic in the oven.

Contact her at to inquire about how your marketing efforts can become more successful.

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