I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like lawyers. Ironically enough, not to mention thankfully, one of my best friends is a lawyer. Lawyers just seem to tap into that wasteland of society that wants to live off the hard work of others. I see these injury lawyers beating their drum in the afternoons while I’m eating lunch by the TV, and I can feel my insurance premiums slowly creeping up. As a web developer, I’d never thought much about lawyers when it came to the web. True, if you envision yourself to be the next Shawn Fanning (Napster) or Kim Dotcom (Megaupload), you’re kind of asking for it, but your standard web entrepreneur should be pretty safe, right? If you’re wallpapering your site with images haphazardly taken from a simple Google Images search, you are probably positioning yourself in a lawyer’s crosshairs as we speak.

How do I know this? Unfortunately, I’ve tangled with an attorney over this matter. It was about two and a half years ago. I’d just launched a new site, and I was busy filling it out with music content and concert photos. I’d pulled a photo of a popular classic rock band off the web, and resized it to work with my WordPress theme. In my haste, I hadn’t noticed there was a copyright notation in the bottom corner that I inadvertently snipped off.

About a month of two later, I got a letter from a law firm that specializes in photo copyright infringement saying we had infringed on their client’s copyright, and they were offering a settlement of $15,000 to resolve the matter. We were also advised that statutory damages can run between $30,000 and $150,000 per instance should the matter go to court. Obviously, I didn’t have this kind of money and even if I did I certainly didn’t want to see it flushed down the toilet due to a colossal blunder on my part.

I immediately removed the image from the site, explained the situation and offered my sincere apologies for my ignorance in copyright matters. This did little to dissuade the lawyer as he pushed forward with the matter. My friend referred me to someone who specialized in IP law, and he advised me through the negotiations. After lots of back and forth, the final settlement amounted to less than a third of their original number. It wasn’t a business crippling loss, but it did set us back considerably.

So I hear a lot of people out there saying, this doesn’t apply to me because:

1) I cite the photographer’s name below the image or even link back to their website.
This only works for creative commons images not standard copyrights. Read more on cc images below.
2) The site I run is just a personal blog. I’m not making any money from it. It barely pulls in any traffic.
It doesn’t matter. The damage is seen as the same.
3) I have a disclaimer on my site saying none of the images are mine.
Also doesn’t matter since you were never granted permission by the photographer to use the image.
4) There isn’t any copyright information on the image or on the page it was posted on so it must be fair game, right?
Wrong. Images are copywritten from the moment that shutter button is pressed down. Even if it hasn’t been registered with the U.S. copyright office, the photographer still has a copyright on the image in question.
5) You’ve got to be kidding me. In the billions of pages on the web, there is no way a photographer is going to randomly happen upon his image on our site.
Its actually painful simple to find images on the web using Google Images. They have built in a find similar feature that will scour the web for everywhere that image is being used.

We’ve already discussed immediately removing the image from your server, the fact that you did it accidentally and that it was resized. There really are no excuses to evade image copyright law. The fact is if you weren’t given permission to use the image by the photographer or haven’t paid a third party agency to license the image, you are liable for damages. If one image can set you back several thousands of dollars, a site filled with images grabbed off the web is a ticking financial Chernobyl, poised to ruin your life.

So What is the Answer?

I know this article has been deeply mired in gloom and doom up to this point, but there is a solution. It takes some creativity and digging, but there are several low cost and free options at your disposal. You just have to know where to look.

Creative Commons Images
Creative Commons, or often denoted simply as cc, is a webmasters’ best friend. I use Creative Commons images exhaustively on sites I manage. Photographers who designate their work fall under Creative Commons can set six different licenses to appropriately define usage restrictions. Some images can’t be used commercially. With other instances, the image can’t be altered. The one constant is that the work has to be attributed correctly. Just like your seventh grade English teacher always said, always cite your sources.

The best place I’ve found to search out cc images is Flickr. To find images in the cc catalog, just do a basic search then click the advanced link below the search box once the results come up. At the bottom of the page, you’ll see a check box to only search Creative Commons. You can also screen for commercially available and images that allow modification. As I said, attribution is very important in Creative Commons. At the least, you’ll want to denote the photographer as well as link back to the source. Here is an example using the beautiful Taylor Swift rocking out at the CMA Festival:

Taylor Swift at CMA FestivalPhoto : Mark Runyon | ConcertTour.org

Sometimes there are special instructions for properly attributing a photo so scroll down the photo description to ensure you are formatting this correctly. The biggest drawback to Flickr can be sifting through an ocean of low-quality pictures people snap on their iPhones and some subjects just aren’t there. In addition to Flickr, the Wikimedia Commons can be a great resource for finding Creative Commons images as well.

Shutterstock and Microstock Photography
As great as Creative Commons is, sometimes they just don’t have what you are looking for. Here is where microstock licensing comes in handy. Basically, photographers allow their photos to used by these agencies at a reduced rate (20 cents to $10) with the hopes of making up the difference in volume. These agencies accept photos from amateurs and hobbyists as well as the professional shutterbugs. From what I’ve seen, the quality is usually very high. Shutterstock is one of the best in this area.

The approach I’d recommend is taking advantage of their 25 images a day for a month plan that costs $249. You can normally find a coupon to cut that cost down. Here is a current code for 10% off your order (SS10). If you max out your allotment, you can rake in 750 photos for the miniscule rate of .30 a photo. You’re not going to find value like that many places on the Internet.

Become a Photographer
Who better to express the vision of your website than yourself? Compact cameras take surprisingly good photos these days and low end DSLRs are fairly affordable. Some people may not have the budget to buy a camera or the creative vision to frame a photograph. Admittedly, this isn’t for everyone, but it can be a fun hobby and solves all the copyright trip wires since you own the photos. Check your local community college for cheap photography continuing education classes. It can be a great starting point.

Perhaps the best reason to pick up your camera and start shooting is to give back to the community. I use a lot of Creative Commons images on my sites and am extremely thankful to the talented photographers that have chosen to share their work. As a photographer, I post everything I shoot under creative commons to help grow this resource and vibrant community. Did I mention it can be great advertising for your brand?

Getty, AP, WENN and the Big Agencies
If you have bottomless pockets, you can always rely on the photo agencies that the large news organizations use. The breadth of their selection knows no bounds since they have professional photographers pretty much covering any event you can think of. They tend to charge based on the reach of your audience, and that number is just not a feasible option for most small to mid-range sites.

Personally, I’ve used all of these methods in some form or fashion over the years. I normally photograph an event about once a week so that really helps fill out my collection. If I haven’t taken it first hand, I’ll go to Flickr to see what the cc community has to offer. Every six months or so, I’ll order a month’s subscription to Shutterstock to complete the holes in my collection as well as download photos that I think will be relevant to the projects I’m planning to pursue in the coming months. I’ve used the big agencies (AP & WENN) for a couple months, but quickly found that was a ticket straight to the poor house.

In the end, there are many ways to use images on the Internet legally that won’t have a lawyer knocking on your door ready to take the deed to your house. Use some combination of the options listed above, and your site will continue to thrive without losing sleepless nights worrying over it.

A couple intersting articles along this vein:
How using Google Images can cost you $8000
Blogger Beware: You CAN Get Sued For Using Photos You Don’t Own on Your Blog

Nikon Camera Image Courtesy of Luke Martinelli on Flickr