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I visited a local social media networking group in Phoenix the other night. The [mis]information provided by the “expert” regarding the use of images in social media posts was scary. The group coordinator assured these fledgling bloggers and posters that as long as they don’t have a call to action in their post, they can use any image they find on the internet. After all, they were “educating” the public. Wrong!

According to Ruth Carter, owner of Carter Law Firm in Phoenix and the author of The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to Get Sued, Fired, Arrested or Killed, “A lot of people think you can use any image you find online as long as you provide an attribution and a link back to the original, but that’s not true,” Carter said. “What you might be doing is committing copyright infringement and making it easy for the artist to discover that you stole his or her work.

“When a person takes a photo or creates a graphic, they own the copyright in it. This means they have the exclusive right to control where others can copy and distribute that image. If you use their work without their permission, you could be committing copyright infringement. If you get caught, if you’re lucky you might get a cease-and-desist letter or a DMCA takedown notice. However,” Carter continued, “they could send you a bill for using their work or they could sue you. In the worst-case scenario, you could be sued for up to $150,000 per image plus the artist’s attorneys’ fees. And it doesn’t matter than you didn’t know that you were committing copyright infringement when you did it.

“If you need images for your blog or website, use images that come with a Creative Commons license, preferably one that allows you to modify and commercialize the image,” Carter recommends.

To prevent needing a $300-plus an hour lawyer to defend yourself against a copyright infringement allegation, use images with creative commons attribution or purchase images from legitimate vendors.

Every artist is entitled to make a fair profit on his or her work. You may consider an image “just a picture.” In fact, the artist may have worked hours on that image or graphic. Not only is it cheaper in the long run if you avoid litigation, it’s the ethical thing to do.

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