Think before you pull that image from a website
Published: October 4, 2011
Every blogger knows how difficult it can be to find good images. As I pointed out in a previous column, those images are a plus for your content. It can be a real challenge to determine exactly who owns an image.
Kay B. Day
Apparently some entrepreneurs are capitalizing on that difficulty. They’re also capitalizing on the often-complex provisions and gray areas in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
An article written by Tam Harbert for the American Society of Journalists and Authors in their September 2011 newsletter sounds a warning that writers should heed. Harbert quoted a journalist turned copyright consultant named Jonathan Bailey. Bailey told Harbert, “The stock photo industry has been on a litigious rampage in recent years. … It has filed probably tens of thousands of lawsuits.”
For writers, content rights are a conflicted issue. On the one hand, we want to protect our own content. On the other, if we see a perfect photo and the rights aren’t explicit, we’re tempted to use it. This can be an issue with old photos or illustrations produced by a company that no longer operates. Rights could have been acquired by another company. The matter can get complicated.
I’ve had experiences with people pulling both my text and my photos from my website (called "scraping"). When there’s a credit and backlink to my site, I rarely say anything. On occasion I will see a few new visitors dropping by to read.
I did get very angry when one website reprinted a long essay word for word and also used a photograph. I had put many hours into the feature. The content scraper didn’t include my byline, the name of my website or a URL. He put his website name on my content. That is basically outright theft.
I spent another hour tracking down the owner of the website. I emailed him and asked him to remove the content.
He responded by telling me to complete a Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notice. I was flabbergasted. This man steals my content and has the nerve to advise me of HIS rights? It didn’t help that he was in a foreign country. It really, really didn’t help when I found out he was right.
I wasn’t about to roll more time into the fiasco. I just blocked his IP number from my website. I knew he could get around it but at least I felt better. I came up with a pint-sized workaround. Now I label my images with the name of my website—I add it after the keywords at the front of the title.
How much time would it have taken me to legally demand the scraper take my content down? The method for notifying someone is not that difficult, but you have to factor in the time for exchanging messages and also for follow-up.
In an article about the takedown notice, Attorney Ivan Hoffman provides a concise explanation of what the notice must include, such as your signature, identification of the work in question, the material you’re claiming copyright for and your contact information. The takedown notice has very specific provisions.
According to Harbert’s article, businesses are springing up after seeing benefits in experiences like mine. These businesses go after bloggers who use photos without permission, sometimes asking for sizable fees even if the blogger used the photo only once and took it down as soon as he was asked.
Most of us who write for a living are aware there are legal pitfalls for copyright infringement. In the past the copyright owner would send a letter asking you to remove the content. You’d comply and that was the end of it.
Now, however, in some cases even if you win, you lose. For one thing, if a company sends you a bill for an image you used and you refuse to pay the bill, the company may pursue legal options. Then you’d not only have to pay for the use, you’d have to pay legal costs even if you had no idea you were infringing on a copyright.
Does anyone really want to spend time dealing with a legal issue?
Before I read Harbert’s article, I had noticed something strange when I searched for images in the digital collection at the Library of Congress. The LOC has a cautionary statement on every photo: Rights assessment is your responsibility. That statement is even listed on many photos that you’d think are in the public domain.
So what does a blogger do?
There are many resources for images on the Web as long as you’re willing to pay. There’s also the popular Creative Commons site. I don’t use either.
I shoot as many of my photos as I possibly can. A photo doesn’t have to illustrate something specifically from the story. For instance, if you’re doing an article about a new drug, you can come up with all sorts of ideas. If you’re doing a story about a new allergy drug, find the nearest kitty cat or bunch of ragweed. An article on crime? Take a photo of someone’s gun or a gun in a museum. I’ve even used my daughter as a model in an article about blogging. You just have to put on your thinking cap and you have to be willing to seize (or construct) a moment.
The federal government and state governments are also good resources. However, just because a photo is on a government website doesn’t mean it’s in the public domain. The website should tell you if there are any restrictions. Agencies like NASA, the US Forest Service and the Centers for Disease Control are good resources. Be sure to credit the photo exactly as the agency states. Sometimes there will be no annotation—this is true of photos at the CIA World Fact Book site.
Based on what I read in the ASJA article, writers should as always tread carefully when using any image without clearly defined copyright information. The blog you use to promote your work probably doesn’t generate enough revenue to cover a surprise bill for $1,000.
There’s always that annoying little conflict we have, though. You know that if someone scrapes your images you’ll feel like he should have paid in some way, even if it was just with a link.
Bottom line: think before you scrape that image. Otherwise, it could cost you more than you’ll want to pay.
Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International, The Florida Times-Union and Sky News. To learn more about Kay Day, see kayday.com. To read Kay's other Web Savvy columns about writing for the Web, click here.||