For many businesses, websites are no longer an optional extra; they are an essential tool.

A business website is multi-functional – they are not only used to sell goods and services, but also work to market your business by improving visibility and developing brand awareness.

However, the truth is websites cost money. They need to be designed and developed, and you need to acquire content – from prose through to photos, infographics and videos. Quality content is essential – but it doesn’t always come cheap. For this reason, many businesses are tempted to ‘borrow’ a couple of images until they can afford to buy their own.

Here, I explain why businesses need to be careful when ‘acquiring’ web content.

Why can’t I just borrow a few graphics?

The web is full of images. It can be tempting to take a few of them for your website to fill up space until you can afford to purchase or create images yourself. However, the plethora of images found on the net are not a free for all; ‘borrowing’ images can equate to very real consequences.

Many founders operate under two incorrect assumptions:

  1. They think that the ultimate consequence is a ‘take down’ notice – little do they realize using images unlawfully can actually result in a monetary penalty.
  2. They assume that by borrowing graphics, they haven’t actually done any real harm to the owner of the image. While the “damages” may not be obvious, copyright violations come with statutory damages. In monetary terms, this could mean you owe the owner anywhere between $750 and $30,000 per image.

Case study

My friend George owns a stock photo company and his images are available on the internet for businesses to use in exchange for a license fee.

His images are often used unlawfully; to combat this, he embeds a detectable signature into each image. George then employs web crawlers to search for businesses that are using unauthorized copies of his images.

When he comes across an unauthorized image, George sends the business a demand letter for $5,000 and requests that they purchase a license for the image. The common response is an offer to take the image down, rather than pay up.

In reply, George requests settlement of $10,000 plus the licensing fee. If this is refuted or the borrower offers to pay the initial amount ($5,000), George sends a settlement demand of $15,000 plus the licensing fee – most businesses then cough up. If businesses continue to debate, he pursues them in court for the maximum amount – $30,000 per image.

George makes more money off businesses that have used unauthorized copies of his images than he does selling his images.

Can I borrow a concept?

Some businesses think if they modify an image then it is okay. The truth is, borrowing concepts from other companies equates to similar issues as outlined above. A derivative work that is based on or derived from an original copyrighted piece is still copyright infringement.

Ultimately, the aim is protect businesses and individuals from having their work undermined.

Imagine if Disney’s Micky Mouse was replicated by another business to promote their products (i.e. a lookalike with a different name). This could detract from Disney’s original character and could harm their image.

What about ‘temporary borrowing’?

While it’s tempting to borrow images for a little bit and then replace them with an authorized image, it’s important to note that the risk of a penalty doesn’t vanish the second you take down the image.

Many businesses fail to realize that removing an image from your website isn’t enough to protect you further down the track. Image owners can use a variety of tactics to see if their photos and graphics have been used in the past. Sites such as Wayback Machine allow them to view past versions of the site, making it possible to see images that have been used on your site in the past.

It’s not worth the risk

While business owners such as George are more advanced in terms of tracking images than the average stock photo company or photographer, the technology is becoming more readily available.

Ultimately, anyone can copy an image into Google’s Image Search function and see where a photo or graphic has been used. For those who own images, there is simply too much money on offer to turn a blind eye.

If you are planning to set up a website, be prepared to pay those image licensing fees. It will cost more to set up your site – but it won’t cost as much as a lawsuit!