Blogger Beware: You CAN Get Sued For Using Photos You Don't Own on Your Blog

Blogger Beware: You CAN Get Sued For Using Photos You Don't Own on Your Blog

Today I need to talk about something that I've been wanting to blog about for a while but couldn't until the situation was wrapped up.

For those of you who are super observant, you may have noticed some changes on my blog over the last few months. Tumblr posts went away. Fiction Groupie disappeared. I deleted most of my Pinterest boards. The Boyfriend of the Week has changed format. And all my previous posts from the past three years -- all 700 of them -- now have new photos on them.

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Image: Ginnerobot via Flickr.

Why is that? What happened?

Well, you've probably figured it out from the title, but it's because I've been involved in a case regarding a photo I used on my blog. Like most of you, I'm a casual blogger and learned my way into blogging by watching others. And one of the things I learned early on was that a post with a photo always looked nicer than one with just text. So I looked at what other people were doing for pictures.

And mostly it seemed that everyone was grabbing pics from Google Images and pasting them on their sites. Sometimes with attribution, most of the time without. And when I asked others (or looked at disclaimers on websites and Tumblrs), it seemed that everyone agreed using pics that way was okay under Fair Use standards.

Here is an example of a disclaimer I found on a bigger site (name of blog removed):

THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and do not wish for it appear on this site, please E-mail with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed.

And site after site had the same kind of thing. Just look on Tumblr, that same type of disclaimer is on a ton of them. And I'm thinking -- well, that must mean it's okay because if that weren't true, sites like Tumblr and Pinterest couldn't even exist because reposting pics is the whole POINT of those sites. So off I went doing what everyone else does -- using pics from Google Images, putting a disclaimer on my site, etc.

Well on one random post, I grabbed one random picture off of Google and then a few weeks later I got contacted by the photographer who owned that photo. He sent me a takedown notice, which I responded to immediately because I felt awful that I had unknowingly used a copyrighted pic. The pic was down within minutes. But that wasn't going to cut it. He wanted compensation for the pic. A significant chunk of money that I couldn't afford. I'm not going to go into the details but know that it was a lot of stress, lawyers had to get involved, and I had to pay money that I didn't have for a use of a photo I didn't need.

It wasn't fun. But the fact of the matter is, I was in the wrong. Unknowingly. But that doesn't matter. And my guess is that many, many of you are doing the same thing I was doing without realizing it's a copyright violation. So I wanted to share my experience so that you can learn from my mistake.

Here's what I learned about Fair Use:

It doesn't matter...

  • if you link back to the source and list the photographer's name
  • if the picture is not full-sized
  • if you did it innocently
  • if your site is non-commercial and you made no money from the use of the photo
  • if you didn't claim the photo was yours
  • if you've added commentary in addition to having the pic in the post
  • if the picture is embedded and not saved on your server
  • if you have a disclaimer on your site
  • if you immediately take down a pic if someone sends you a DMCA notice (you do have to take it down, but it doesn't absolve you.)

NONE OF THAT releases you from liability. You are violating copyright if you have not gotten express PERMISSION from the copyright holder OR are using pics that are public domain, creative commons, etc. (more on that below.)

I didn't know better, and I had to learn the hard way. So I want to let you all know now so that you don't have to be a cautionary tale as well.

Plus, beyond not wanting to be sued, most of you who are reading this are writers. Our livelihood depends on the rights to our work. I've already had to send my own DMCAs to sites that have pirated my books. So I definitely don't want to be someone who infringes on someone else's copyright. A photo is someone else's art and unless they tell me it's okay, I don't have the right to use it.

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