A bit over a year ago, I had a picture that got featured by Google, and to say it kind of took off would be an understatement. Typically, my shots on G+ garner around 1500 views, give or take. Some get a good bit more than that, but that’s about normal. This shot though, is currently well over 15,000,000 views, and still rising.
I recently got curious about the shot, and did a Google reverse image search for it. The results surprised me. The shot returned literally dozens, maybe hundreds, of results. Most of them, oddly enough, were of people who were using it as their profile photo on their YouTube accounts. There were also plenty of results for pretty-picture and wallpaper websites as well. Happily, what I didn’t find was anyone trying to use it to make money by some means (although I’m aware that many of those YouTube accounts are little more than click-bait). I don’t do this stuff for money, so I have no problem with people appropriating my shots for their own personal use, but someone misrepresenting it for their own personal gain would piss me off.
Here’s the thing, though. Every one of those people that are using my image, for whatever reason, are breaking the law (at least they were until today). I could, if I so chose, sue those people for copyright infringement. I don’t have to warn them, or give them a chance to remove it, or file a DMCA takedown notice. I could simply lawyer up and go after them. Could I win? Yes. Would I actually do it? Not likely. Could I get anything meaningful out of it even if I did? Almost assuredly not. But a simple fact remains; the existence of an image online does NOT give you the right to use it. To be sure, there are many, many images out there that are free to use, but not anywhere all, or even most, of them. And to take it a bit further; if you DO use an image whose provenance you are not sure of, you run a risk, small though it may be, of being sued. It doesn’t matter where you found the image, whether you give credit for it, whether you make money on it or not, or whether you take it down or not.
Recently there’s been a spate of people getting sued for just such a situation. Often, these are brought about by grievous abuse, such as people ripping off photographs wholesale and attempting to pass them off as their own, but in a few notable instances, it was for something as simple as what I described above. A person found an image online that they liked, put it own their own website, and ended up getting sued for it. And had to pay.
The reason I bring this all up is that I don’t want any of you to end up going through this. I’ve posted almost exclusively my own content on this site, but that wasn’t always the case. In days of old, I posted pictures I picked up all over the internet, just because I liked them. Back then, lawsuits were even less likely than they are now, so I was never in any real peril of being sued, but knowing what I know now, it just doesn’t make sense to tempt fate. In fact, there was exactly ONE image on this site that didn’t come from me (other than a couple I ran as banner ads on behalf of the owners), and that image has been gone for some time now. It’s just not worth it.
So, the moral of the story is this; if you want a pretty picture to post on Facebook or Tumblr or your blog, source it from somewhere where the images really are free. Don’t grab it randomly and hope nobody notices. Do your homework, and avoid the headache.
And just for the record, I now license all my images under the Creative Commons NC license, which means you can do with them what you will, as long as you don’t make any money off them. Have fun!