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One of your employees has used a copyrighted image without permission. What now?

Photo: Bench Accounting CC0

Picture this: One of your employees is writing a blog post for your company website. They do a Google image search, find a suitable photo, and upload it to the blog.

This scenario may sound unremarkable at first, but if your employee has not obtained permission or a license to use the image from the copyright owner, it may be classed as copyright infringement and it’s you, the business owner, who assumes legal responsibility.

A business owner is ultimately responsible for the actions of their staff and/or contractors. That’s why it’s important to understand the possible consequences of unauthorized use of copyrighted work, and the steps you can take to make sure it doesn’t happen in your company.

What are the potential consequences of unauthorized image use?

The copyright of an image belongs to the individual who created that image. You must obtain permission or a license for each designated use of copyrighted material – no exceptions. For more info on how to find out who owns the copyright to an image you want to use, how to seek permission or a license,  have a look at our guide to using copyrighted images.

When a copyright owner discovers that one of their images has been used without permission on a company’s website, they can decide to take one of a number of actions.

They may choose to contact the business owner independently, hire their own attorney, or take action through a service such as Pixsy. The copyright owner may request that the image be properly attributed to them or taken down. It is more likely that they will offer you an opportunity to license the image for retroactive and sometimes continued use.

The creator may also choose to initiate legal action to claim statutory damages for copyright infringement. The amount of statutory damages recoverable varies depending on the circumstances and by jurisdiction. In the US, for example, statutory damages are set out in 17 U.S.C. § 504 of the US Code. The basic level of damages for images registered with the US Copyright Office is between $750 and $30,000 per work, at the discretion of the court. If the creator can prove wilful infringement, they may be entitled to damages up to $150,000 per work.  

What should I do if an image owner contacts me?

It is a common misconception that simply removing an infringed image, or ignoring a request to license an image for a fair fee, will resolve the situation. But that’s not true: Agreeing to pay a reasonable license fee is not only fair to the copyright owner, it is also often a way to resolve the matter in an amicable way, without resorting to costly legal proceedings.

How can I prevent my employees from using images without authorization?

Create rights-managed image repositories

When commissioning or purchasing images, save them in a central location (along with the receipt, screenshot and any communications with the image owner), and share access to anyone creating or editing materials on behalf of the business. Building such a repository into the framework of day-to-day business makes it is less likely an employee will search online and use an image without securing the appropriate permissions. If there are rules around the use of each image, group these types together in folders, and label them clearly to prevent confusion. Make sure these image repositories are audited regularly to ensure the licenses are current.

Establish a clear system for image procurement and use of procured images

If your business requires a constant flow of visual material to support content production (a publisher, for example) it’s best to establish a clear and well-moderated system for procured images. If you have multiple rights-managed images licensed for one-time use stored in a media archive, it them separate from the general image repository to avoid confusion or mishap.

Use Creative Commons

Creative Commons (CC) licenses are an excellent way to access images that are legally and readily available provided you adhere to the terms of the different CC license agreements. Make sure Creative Commons licenses are used correctly, as otherwise the license is invalid. If you need to know more about that, we’ve got you covered right here.

Hire photographers

If you need industry-specific photographs, why not hire a photographer to shoot a series of images to suit your purpose? During the contracting phase, be sure to clarify copyright ownership of the ensuing images, or agree license terms for their use (otherwise copyright of any images created could default to the photographer).

Educate staff about image copyright

Simply talking with staff about why copyright is important can go a long way in preventing unauthorized image use from happening in your company. Many people are not informed about copyright, why it’s so important to procure appropriate licenses prior to using someone else’s work, and that there are legal consequences involved if these permissions have not been sought.  

Finally, build these procedures into contractor, freelance, and agency agreements

Once the above measures are in place, make sure they are built into agreements with everyone who works with your business on site, or remotely.

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tl;dr

  • Legally, a business owner assumes responsibility for unauthorized image use on their website or other communication channels.
  • If one of your employees uses an image on your company website or other channel, copyright owners can initiate legal proceedings against you.
  • Statutory damage settlements for unauthorized use of copyrighted material can range from $750 to $150,000 per work in the US.
  • To avoid employees using copyrighted material without authorization on company websites, create and enforce company policy on appropriate image use.
    • Build a rights-managed image repository.
    • Consider hiring photographers and/or using Creative Commons images (making sure you adhere to the particular licence terms).

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