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Why Your Blog Images Are A Ticking Time Bomb

Mike Essex

by Mike Essex on 26th February 2014

Business LawLast month I looked at why we deleted 900 blog posts and how that helped us. The key message we discovered was that old content can work against you and that a spring clean is never a bad thing. In that post I identified the ways in which old content could be affecting user experience and today I’m going to look at how your archives could cost you a lot of money.

There are many issues to tackle, but for today we’re just going to look at the minefield that is online image use. This doesn’t constitute actual legal advice so we’d always recommend you consult a lawyer if unsure, it’s merely a guide to help you avoid some of the potential pitfalls.

Stolen Imagery

I think it’s safe to say that everyone who blogs has at one time or another performed a Google image search and used an image on a blog post. Whilst you probably all know not to do that now (for so many reasons), can you be 100% sure that your entire blog post archive, across every one of your authors, doesn’t have a single photo like that?

Also if you’ve ever had a guest author post for you and they provided photos, are you sure that they owned the photos or did they just perform a Google search? It’s probably something worth checking even retroactively for your own posts and those of others. After all it’s never been easier for people to do a reverse image search and find where their photos have been used.

If you need an example of just why not to do this, one agency got sued $8,000 for using an image on a blog post that got less than 100 visitors. They called it their “most costly mistake since starting the business”. Likewise this agency got sued $4,000 for an image that would have originally cost $10. All in all this is the most obvious issue but not the only one.

Creative Commons Isn’t Safe

The safest way to get blog post images is to do a search for images that are marked as Creative Commons licensed. You can find these via CC Search and on sites like Flickr which have a licence that looks like this:

Creative Commons

It’s a fantastic idea, but comes with its own pitfalls. For example, one company was republishing newspaper content under a CC licence for others to use. However they didn’t have a licence from the original creators of the content to do that so got sued. It’s also rather shaky ground for those who took the content from them.

Even more shockingly Persephone Magazine used an image with a Creative Commons licence and were later sued for $1,500 for using it. It turned out the photo did not belong to the person who uploaded it with a CC licence, which led to 73 companies being sued who used it, despite the fact they had the best of intentions. As for Persephone Magazine $1,500 was more than their entire ad revenue for the year and they had to ask their users to donate just to keep the site going.

Things like this always make me wary of using CC images, despite the obvious advantages it has. The best thing I can recommend is to always do a reverse image lookup for any CC image you want to use. If it pops up on a stock photo site then stay well away.

Stock Photos Aren’t Safe

If you’ve purchased a stock photo it may seem like you’ve done all you can to keep the photo lawyers away. After all you’ve paid for the image so now you can do what you want with it right? Well not exactly. One of the biggest traps people fall into is not crediting the photo. Yep, even if you pay you have to credit the photo, here’s how that looks on BigStock:

“You shall provide a link back to www.Bigstock.com (where applicable) -OR- provide a credit to the Bigstock contributor and to Bigstock in connection with the editorial use of any Image.”

You’ll find similar terms on iStock Photo, Fotolia and more. So if you buy a photo you will need a line on the content somewhere to explain where you got it from. In fact I’d suggest you read all of the terms of any stock photo site you use. I did it for BigStock and it took a long time but had I not done it I’d be spending more days going back crediting photos later on.

Over Usage

Another term to bear in mind is that Stock Photos are usually for a limited use, so if you’ve used one image on fifty blog posts that may not be allowed under the terms. If this is the case then you’ll need to keep an internal log of how often you’ve used an image. There’s also limits on the number of sites you can use an image on so any guest post authors providing you with images must also bear this in mind.

As a side note if you use an image on printed material most stock photo sites will have a limit to the number of times it can be printed. For example BigStock limit you to a print run of 250,000 copies for a single image when used in printed materials such as magazines.

Sued Letter

Watch Out For User Generated Content

One of the first rules for having user generated content is that you should always have terms that state users are responsible for what they upload. Sadly lawyers may be more likely to jump on and blame the hosting site rather than the original author. GoodReads faced one of the biggest copyright cases ever over this, when they were sued $150,000 for an image someone uploaded of a boy band member. Considering this photo was on a group about the band (so was free PR for the band) it seemed really strange that a lawsuit happened.

Thankfully the DMCA does offer a degree of protection for 3rd party content so if you do allow content from others then it’s worth reading up on it.  In the above case it’s likely GoodReads would be fine based on the DMCA.

False Affiliations

I believe one of the biggest risks for the future is that the big studios are going to fight a lot harder against uses of their characters and properties that are not approved. There are already countless laws being prepped to help them do this and I feel it’s only a matter of time before we start to see big cases in this area.

For example this infographic on “The Cost Of Being Batman” uses characters from DC Comics and the Warner Brothers movie. If Money Supermarket got permission to do this then there is no issue, however if they didn’t the fact they have credited the images won’t be enough to prevent the risk of any action.

Whilst you could argue that people doing this also provide exposure for the property in question you only have to look at the recent overload of Anchorman 2 tie-ins to see that actually studios are already trying to do their own tie-ins. Why wouldn’t they want to crush unauthorised usage?


Memes must be one of the biggest grey areas of image usage there is. Parody is typically covered as being acceptable but only if the new work is far removed from the original (see the Naked Gun advert in this example. Memes however aren’t really doing that, they are very similar to the original work, often with text added on top being the only change.

Memes certainly can’t be used for commercial-use without permission (as illustrated here). If you don’t have permission from the person who created the original image then you shouldn’t use it, no matter how wide-spread the image is online. In truth memes are no less risky that jumping on Google images and picking the first image you see.

What next?

Scared? Well sadly you should be. Even a single photo from your archive could end up costing you anywhere between $1,000 and $10,000. Roni Loren found this out the hard way when she had to change the images on 700 blog posts to protect herself after she was sued for a photo. She found it really doesn’t matter what excuses you have, if you use someone else’s photo without permission, no matter how you found it or credited it you are at risk.

So if you have doubts then there are two options:

1) Identify and Update: Go back through all of your blog posts. Are all the images credited? Follow those credits and see if they are purchased from a stock photo site or have a CC licence and are not from other sites too . If you can’t find the source on the post then it’s often safer to buy a new image. Then once you add the new image be sure to credit it so in the future you’ll know.

2) Do nothing: Of course you could always do nothing. If it will cost you tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds to go through and check then it may work out that a few lawsuits will actually be cheaper than changing anything. You’ll be able to sleep sounder with option one and personally I’d always recommend fixing things, but it’s your call.

Sadly even sites with the best of intentions can get caught out (as with the CC lawsuit) so there’s no complete solution but hopefully this blog post has helped save a few people from a nasty surprise in their inbox.

If you have any stories about this topic or just think it’s a real mess of a problem then please leave a comment below.

 Image Source

Creative Commons header via CreativeCommons.org
You’re Getting Sued via BigStock
Business Law via BigStock

Mike Essex

Mike Essex

Mike Essex specialises in digital marketing and everything search. A recent project of Mike’s was featured on BBC News, Radio 5Live and the Times here in the UK, whilst also featuring on USA Today and ABC News in the US. He will be writing throughout the month about digital marketing and much more...

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  • Mike Essex

    Mike Essex 26th February 2014

    Since writing this article I’ve also been made aware of a Twitter account that was tweeting the movie Top Gun frame by frame. Unsurprisingly Paramount shut it down (http://mashable.com/2014/02/25/paramount-top-gun-twitter/).

    Further evidence that brands don’t take too favourably to images from their properties being used without permission.

    Reply to this comment

  • john 26th February 2014

    “You shall provide a link back to http://www.Bigstock.com (where applicable) -OR- provide a credit to the Bigstock contributor and to Bigstock in connection with the editorial use of any Image.” surely this is not something Google would condone?

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 26th February 2014

      It’s not great is it? Even from BigStock’s point of view it wouldn’t be a great idea for them to have that many links from such a diverse range of places. However you can just provide a credit (e.g. no link) or theoretically nofollow the link.

      Reply to this comment

  • Iain Bartholomew 26th February 2014

    It really is a terrible legal situation. It’s probably more profitable as a photographer now to have your images used without permission and to sue than it is to sell them legitimately.

    It’s also quite sad that people would rather their images not be seen that allow them to be used without compensation changing hands. If the law required only credit, not compensation then it would be a far better arrangement.

    Reply to this comment

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  • Sgt. Kraut 27th February 2014

    You mention that stockphotos bought from Fotolia need a copyright information. However, in their FAQ is stated:

    “Am I required to add copyright information when I use a photo from Fotolia?

    It is not a requirement to add the copyright information to your website or document, however, it is always appreciated. Copyright information is required in editorial usage, such as newspaper or magazine stories. ”

    It does not seem to be compulsory for websites in the case of Fotolia!

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 27th February 2014

      Thanks for the clarification. I’d also assume that adding it to a blog post would count as editorial usage so I think people still need to be careful but I’m pleased to see that cuts down on some of the issues.

      Reply to this comment

  • Sgt. Kraut 27th February 2014

    Yes, you might be correct that it is indeed needed for blog posts. There might also be differences according to where you are located, as different copyright laws are applicable. For example, I’m German and in the German version of Fotolia’s FAQ they state that websites using their pictures definitely require copyright information.

    So confusing! I think in the end it will be the easiest and best option to just mention the authors somewhere.

    Reply to this comment

  • Chris Flees 6th March 2014

    As a photographer who sells prints I do see both sides of the issue. For most (notice I did not say all) they want their images to be viewed but at the same time they do not want them stolen, not necessarily by the person who did the post but by the people who views the blog or webpage and say Id really like to have that image.

    For many if you contact them first, and I know its a pain, and right click protect the image and attribute the image and/or hotlink it back to their sites and the page is relevant to their work its generally not an issue. Then again an email structuring usage terms when in doubt is not a bad idea.

    The only one catch 22 is making sure you contact the actual content owner and just ask. Most are more than happy to oblige, when possible.

    Reply to this comment

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