Avoid a Copyright Infringement Lawsuit

Cynthia Bartz • October 28, 2015

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen clients try to pass off other people’s images as their own. Most of the time it is innocent enough, you are working on an ad and need an image of a house with a dog out front. So you search Google Images and find a whole host of images to use. The problem with finding images this way is that you most likely will not be able to identify whether or not you are authorized to use that image. Depending on the copyright license it might be ok, or it could be considered stealing. The bottomline of copyright is: If you didn’t make it, don’t take it.

Using photos, or any creative works, that you did not make or buy could cost you thousands of dollars and a huge headache. If you knowing and willfully use copyrighted work with out express permission it could cost you up to $150k in damages per violation. Understanding the law behind copyright is no longer a luxury when infringement is just two right-clicks away.

What is Copyright?

Whenever an individual creates a piece of work they, as the author, are the sole owners of that work. The moment it is created it is copyrighted and the author is the only individual who can legally reproduce, distribute, or display that work. Copyright does have limits, protected works include¹:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works (photographs & illustrations)
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

That means that everything that you have created from your own head: from your doodles when you were in grade school to the tweet you composed late last night is all protected by copyright. The purpose of copyright was originally to protect artists and creatives who make their living on creative works. You have the right to control how your work is used and distributed. By the same token, you are legally required to respect other individual’s copyright by getting express permission to use their work.

Copyright Doesn’t Last Forever

The current copyright laws protects published works for the author’s life, plus 70 years². So If you wrote a book and lived to be 100 in 2088, your book would be copyrighted until 2158. The original copyright act of 1790 was only 14 years, with no renewals. Since then every 50 years or so a new extension has been added.

The most controversial extension was the 1998 Sonny Bono Extension which added 20 years to the copyright terms. The Sonny Bono Extension has been dubbed by media as the Mickey Mouse extension, because it was advocated by the Disney family along with other high powered families keen to protect their assets from being released into public domain. The 1998 extension prevented works such as Steam Boat Willie, Gone with the Wind, and Superman from being released.

Transferring Ownership

Ownership of a copyright may be transferred. Owners may also grant limited use rights. If you read the fine print of stock photography sites you will find that most of them have restrictions of use and do not allow redistribution of purchased images and illustrations. It is also common for businesses and universities to claim ownership of the work you do for them. In this case anything that you write or create for your employer is not owned by you, but by the business.

Works for Hire

Many freelancers and creatives act as “works for hire”. This means that the work that is done for you is owned and copyrighted by you, even though you are not the author. When hiring creatives it is important that you understand what you are paying for. If they are not working under “works for hire” they have the right to reuse the work that they create for you.

Fair Use

Fair Use is a term used when copyrighted works are used without permission, but is not infringement. The majority of “fair use” cases apply to educational and non-profit uses. The language surrounding “fair use” is very loose and it is left to the courts to decide if the use of someone else’s work was a copyright violation or “fair use”. Most likely any use in advertisements or marketing materials does NOT classify as fair use, because you are profiting from the use.

Public Domain

Any work in the public domain may be reproduced, remixed, altered, printed, distributed, etc. without permission from the author. Examples of work in the public domain include: Grimm Brother Fairytales, Shakespeare, and Huckleberry Finn.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons was founded in 2001 in an effort to allow creatives to grant limited use licenses of their work to the public. It has grown into a standard for identifying what you can and can’t use. From their website:

The idea of universal access to research, education, and culture is made possible by the Internet, but our legal and social systems don’t always allow that idea to be realized. Copyright was created long before the emergence of the Internet, and can make it hard to legally perform actions we take for granted on the network: copy, paste, edit source, and post to the Web. The default setting of copyright law requires all of these actions to have explicit permission, granted in advance, whether you’re an artist, teacher, scientist, librarian, policymaker, or just a regular user. To achieve the vision of universal access, someone needed to provide a free, public, and standardized infrastructure that creates a balance between the reality of the Internet and the reality of copyright laws. That someone is Creative Commons.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons Licenses: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/

Legit Sources

Now that we’ve talked about all the big, scary things that you shouldn’t do, there are some fantastic resources out there for public domain works. There are also countless places to purchase copyrighted images and graphics. Below are some of my favorites.



1. http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html#102

2. http://copyright.gov/title17/92chap3.html


© 2016 CB.Graphics. All Rights Reserved.