7 Misconceptions about Copyright and Infringement…and What You Can Do About It

The topic of copyright and infringement is an important one, especially if you own and operate a website or blog where you use images that are not your own.  If you think this doesn’t apply to you, think again.  There is a very good chance that you have an image on your site that violates copyright law.  Whether on purpose or by accident, if you are caught you run the risk of getting sued.  So…being proactive and being informed is extremely important.

What exactly is copyright?  According to the United States Copyright Office, “Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States…to the authors of ‘original works of authorship,’ including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works.”  I highly recommend reading this informative document, but it is vital to note that copyright laws are very complex.  If you have any questions regarding copyright laws, it is a good idea to seek legal advice.

I am not an attorney, but I work in an industry where I need to be aware of the law as it regards to protecting my artistic works. I’d like to share with you some common misconceptions about copyright and infringement that you need to know right now, as well as what you can do to protect yourself and your website moving forward.

7  Misconceptions about Copyright and Infringement:


1. An image has to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office to be protected.

In fact, copyright attaches the moment a work is created.  As soon as you snap the photo, write the book or complete the painting, it receives the protection of copyright.  It is advisable to register a work with the U.S. Copyright Office, as it provides greater protection overall.  They are too many to list here, but always consult an attorney with questions pertaining to copyright law.

2. If the image is on the Internet, it is free to use.  

Wrong!  Never assume images found on the Internet, even Google Images, are free to use.  That image is protected under copyright law and you may not use it unless you’ve purchased a license to do so or have gotten expressed, written permission from the author.

3. If I cite the source, it is ok to use the image.  

Wrong again!  Many people assume that placing an image on their website is similar to writing a term paper.  This is simply not true.  Crediting the source does not count.  It is still infringement.

4. As long as I am not making money with that image, I can use it.

This is definitely not true.  Every time an image is used, it loses value.  To make my point, let’s use the example of a photographer.  He or she may be taking photos that will later be sold to newspapers or magazines.  They will upload a photo to their gallery and set a value to said photo.  This is their livelihood.  Then, in comes website owner X, who sees the photograph and uses it on their blog.  You have now, in effect, decreased the potential value of that image.  The photographer is well within their right to sue you for damages.

5. A third party built my website, so I am not responsible for any infringing images.

The owner of the website is responsible for all content and images on their site.  Period!  Never assume that whoever built your site retained those images legally.  Be sure to ask where the photos are coming from AND get supporting documentation.

6. I’ve used a Creative Commons image, so I’m safe.

Yes…and no!  Let’s use the example of the photographer again.  This time, website owner X has responsibly gone to a Creative Commons website where this photographer has shared an image.  Because it has been labeled as Creative Commons, you have permission to use it free of charge.  Now…and this is important to remember… the photographer still owns the copyright.  Two years later, however, that photographer sells that very same image AND the copyright.  You are now in violation of copyright law.

Here’s another scenario…website owner X selects and image from a Creative Commons site and uploads it to their site.  No problem!  Three years later, a larger image company purchases that Creative Commons site and all the images.   Now that copyright belongs to them and you are in violation.

The worst part is there is no way to know about it. Even worse, some of these larger image companies, like Getty Images (owner of iStockphoto), are going after infringing parties by sending a bill with the threat of “pay or we’ll sue”.

7. I can use the image because no one will ever catch me.

Think again!  It is easier than ever to do a reverse image search on the Internet.  Websites like Tin Eye have made it simple for the average person to see where their images are being used on the Internet.

Now that you are armed with a basic knowledge of how copyright works, what should you do moving forward?  Here are some tips to prevent possible infringement and protect you as well….

  • assume all images on the web are NOT free to use
  • take your own photos and create your own graphics
  • hire someone to create your graphics
  • purchase images from a reputable stock site and save your receipt
  • get permission in writing from the owner
  • keep good records, i.e. when and where you got your image…especially if you are using Creative Commons images

Copyright does not have to be so scary…as long as you stay proactive and informed.  Knowledge is power!


theresa-cifali-headshot-9-12Theresa Cifali, who can be found at http://theresacifali.com/, is a New York based mixed media artist and professional craft designer as well as co-publisher of Bella Crafts Quarterly™. With nearly 20 years of experience working with consumers, manufacturers and retailers in the crafting industry, she is a seasoned designer who understands all aspects of the crafting industry. In addition to her extensive art services, Theresa offers an array of business services from consulting to social media to internet marketing.


    • Jim Carpenter says

      Excellent article. I wish that I had read it a couple of years ago!

      I was helping a friend build a website for his small business. And I was looking for pictures of horses and cowboys (his business is in West Texas), so I did a Bing search. I found a picture he liked, then tried to find the author. I found copies of the picture on more than a dozen sites (including blogs).

      I searched for days and couldn’t find the photographer. So I ASSUMED that it was in the “public domain”, so I could use it while keeping my ethics intact. After all, we were only using the picture to give the website a bit of “local flavor”.

      I thought I had done a reasonable search for ownership, and that we were well within the bounds of law and ethics to use an apparently anonymous photo as background.

      We published the site.

      48 HOURS LATER, I was served papers saying I was being sued For $4,000!!!!!

      I have a corporate attorney friend, so I set an appointment to meet with him

      He said that a lot of unscrupulous people are seeding the Internet with pictures, and then “Trolling” the Web every day with “Tin Eye” and other web services like this that can do a reverse image look up to catch people using their art – AND that they are making a LOT of money doing it.

      My attorney negotiated with their attorney, and threatened to take it to court to uncover this unethical “cottage industry”, or words to that effect.

      They finally settled for about half their demand price, and I had to pay the attorney as well.

      So this lesson cost me about $3,000 – and that’s an expensive learning lesson.

      Heed Kim’s advice folks. My attorney said, unless you purchase specific rights directly from a photographer or from a reputable “Royalty Free” site, then you can assume that ANY photo you see on the Web is copyrighted, and that you WILL be sued if you use it on the Web.

  1. Andrea says

    FYI….”Creative Commons licenses are non-revocable. This means that you cannot stop someone, who has obtained your work under a Creative Commons license, from using the work according to that license. You can stop offering your work under a Creative Commons license at any time you wish; but this will not affect the rights associated with any copies of your work already in circulation under a Creative Commons license. So you need to think carefully when choosing a Creative Commons license to make sure that you are happy for people to be using your work consistent with the terms of the license, even if you later stop distributing your work.” This is from the Creative Commons licensing info at from http://wiki.creativecommons.org/Before_Licensing. So I keep a URL where the image was stored for projects I am working on if I am using CC images. If I was more paranoid, I might do screen shots. This article is incorrect about the CC licensing.

    • Kim says

      The issue is not that the Creative Commons is non-revocable….it really is that people do not keep records. With what Getty and other trolls are doing is assuming guilt and then forcing you to prove you did not infringe. If you have no idea where or when you got the image. These trolls are going after people years later…

      So you download a Creative Commons image in 2005 and store it in a folder. Then you load it up in 2009, but between that time the artist has sold it. If you don’t keep record, you’d not be able to prove it.

      My point is that the trolls are doing things that are SHADY. It was never to say that Creative Commons can change.
      Look what Kim just posted..3 Time Saving Tips for Creating Killer ContentMy Profile

  2. says

    Sheesh! I’ve used one or two photos from Flickr in the past that were under Creative Commons, but now I just do my own photos and graphics. The whole copyright thing is too intimidating and sketchy.

  3. Daniel Klayton says

    Some important points to keep in mind! There are some interesting questions bouncing around now, as to whether (or to what extent) Google Image Search itself violates image copyright laws – especially in their newest model of operation.

    For those looking to buy photos/images/graphics, I’ve been happy using both Shutterstock.com and 123RF.com – both have plans that are about $240 for 30 days of 25 downloads/day. Used to its full potential, that offers 750+ high-quality, high-res images for about $0.31 each. And they’ve got some great material!
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  4. says

    An excellent reason to register (speaking as an honest-to-goodness copyright lawyer) is you can get statutory damages (http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap5.html#504) without the trouble and expense of proving your actual damages caused by the infringement through lost sales or other theories. Can be up to $30K per act of infringement and up to $150K if infringement was “willful”.
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  5. Dani says


    What about if liked an image online and I recreated it again with slight modifications? am still infringing on others images?

  6. says

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