Taking photos off the internet can be costly

by Charles H. Knull

In the early days of the internet, many people believed that “everything on the internet is free to take and copy.” Those people often ended in court as defendants in trademark and copyright infringement cases. The belief that intellectual property laws were somehow suspended on the web was dispelled, Of course, there is still plenty of “borrowing” that happens because it is so easy to cut and paste text and to “right click” on a photograph and then use the text or photograph on one’s own project or website.

Beware the Robots! For a good number of years, copyright and trademark owners discovered web infringements by happenstance. Some big guys did employ people to constantly search the web for ripped-off materials. Then these people were replaced by Robot programs that scan huge numbers of web pages and can identify infringing graphic images based upon the images which are entered into the Robot databases. Most photos put on the web by professionals contain encoded ID information, but the smarty pants who figures how to delete this information is no longer safe from the Robots.

Once the Robot finds copying and alerts its human, the copier will find a notice in an email or mail as to the penalties for copyright infringement, and, usually, an offer of settlement that will be (a) much higher than what the copied would have to pay for a license had it been done the right way and (b) enough less than hiring a lawyer to defend a (losing) copyright infringement law suit to really make the settlement a bargain.

While there may be times when a user thinks that the allegation of infringement is incorrect, in my experience in asking for verification of the ownership of the photo in question and its copyright registration status, the copying proof and potential liability generally exists.

Unfortunately, some of the websites purportedly offering licenses for use of photos do not have the right to license the photos, but have “right clicked” them from legitimate sites. If the license fees seem like a real deal, then beware of the site offering them. You may still hear from the Robots.

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Charles H. Knull

Charles H. Knull is an intellectual property lawyer with over 35 years of experience. He is a member of the N.Y. and D.C. bars. Knull P.C. is a member of the International Trademark Association (INTA).