About those images you grabbed off the internet…

If you’re a parent, you probably remember an occasion or two when your child said to you, “But everybody’s doing it!” as justification for behavior you didn’t condone. Maybe you let it slide, maybe you grounded Charlie for a weekend.

In the business world, however, “everybody’s doing it” doesn’t fly when it comes to copyright infringement.

A few years ago one of our family’s companies received a letter from an attorney. It wasn’t a friendly letter. It stated that the company was using an image on its website without authorization of the owner of that intellectual property.

The company is a small furniture store in a small town in Ohio. When the company was setting up its website, the employee responsible for gathering content to give their web developer did what the advertising sales rep at the local newspaper taught him: he grabbed images from the internet. “It’s easy, and it’s free,” explained the sales rep.

Easy, yes. But according to the letter the company received three years after the site went live, the images – one, at least – was by no means free. For settlement purposes, the owner of the image in question, a photographer, was requesting $1,020. The company also needed to immediately take down the image from its website; delete all copies of it on their computers, servers and storage devices; and destroy any hard copies of the image.

From what I’ve read, the requested settlement was reasonable. The company can handle it, and learned a good lesson. They meant no harm, nor did the employee realize what he had done, but the company will never, ever steal an image again. (Here’s a story of how using a Google image cost a company $8,000. Ouch!)

I can appreciate how the creator of an image, video or any other form of content feels when their work has been taken. When I first started my business we specialized in creating e-newsletters for promotional products distributors. We developed a password-protected library of articles (more accurately, we invested in a library of articles) to enable our clients to choose a relevant, industry-specific topic for every newsletter. Each newsletter was created as a custom HTML document, personalized with colors and graphics to match the client’s brand. We always added ourselves to our clients’ email distribution lists to ensure there weren’t any glitches when emails were released.

One day I received an e-newsletter from a promotional company I’ve never communicated with before. I skim most of the emails I receive. Within a few lines of reading this email my jaw dropped. What the #&@(!?, I thought to myself. This is one of our articles! At the moment I couldn’t fathom how some company I had never heard of had grabbed one of our articles.

After a little digging, I discovered that a client’s employee left her company to start a business. Before the employee resigned, she logged into our article library to lift articles. I imagine she liked our newsletter service but as a new business owner didn’t have the funds to pay for it. She must have figured this would give her a running start. The even bolder move she made? She copied our client’s contact database. That’s how I received her email, and uncovered what she was doing.

I’m not litigious by nature, but I contacted our attorney immediately. He quickly fired off a letter to explain why her actions were unacceptable. My client followed suit. As far as we knew, she immediately stopped using our material.

In her defense, maybe she lumped our content into the same category as the copyright-free image libraries she had access to through promotional products suppliers. They want distributors to show and share their product images. It helps sell the product.

For small businesses that can’t afford custom images/photography, but want professional quality photos for their websites, brochures, blog posts, you name it, the answer is simple: Purchase stock, copyright-free images. Our sources include iStock, 123rf.com, Dollar Photo Club, RMF123.com, ThinkStock, PunchStock, and Fotolia. Check them out!