By James Forrest

At the Forrest Firm, we have the pleasure of working with all types of corporate entities from multiple industries.  In the course of our work, we advise many startup companies before they even begin to think about their branding and market presence, which can include logos, avatars, business cards and websites.

As the market gets more technology-driven by the second and companies leap into online marketing, they must understand the perils of abiding by the intellectual property rights of others. This is particularly true in the use of images.

Companies use compelling images to tell their stories in ways that words simply cannot communicate.  For example, our firm has a website (you are more than likely reading this article while visiting that very site), and we have images spread throughout its pages.  The Forrest Firm has full rights and privileges to these images through various means.

Often, companies need to source their images for sales and marketing collateral from other places, those primarily found on the internet.   A quick Google search reveals multiple sources for images; in fact, Google itself will source multiple images for you on the vast majority of searches through its images option.

Online images are fraught with peril—while it may appear that they are all there for the taking (i.e., a simple right click and “save-as”), the fact of the matter is that many of them are protected intellectual property.  Just as we advise our clients on how to react to those who infringe upon their intellectual property rights, we must also advise them at times on avoiding encroachment upon the rights of others.  This type of activity is very similar to the legal issues associated with Napster several years ago (i.e., just because music is available for the taking on the internet doesn’t mean that you are free to download and listen to that music without infringing the rights of others).

There are several varieties of images, with varying degrees of safety in use.  For example, there are certain sites that serve as repositories for images intended for secondary use.  Sites such as, for example, offer a pay-by-the-image or subscription service available for those with larger photographic needs.  Many of our clients use these repositories wisely, and by paying for these images, have the right to use them in their promotional materials.

Other sites, such as Creative Commons, feature photos and other images that companies and individuals can use based on certain restrictions.  It’s important to note these restrictions, since some rights owners will allow individuals to use their images for personal use but restrict use of their work by commercial entities.

These two examples of types of sites where companies can have either unrestricted or somewhat-restricted use of images are only the tip of the internet iceberg.  The vast majority of images are just “out there,” but that doesn’t mean they are there for the taking.  All of these images have owners, and many of them have taken the time to copyright their work.   Unless you see a clear avenue for obtaining image rights of the owner, either in writing on the source site or subsequently in writing after making a formal request for use, you should avoid using this work for your promotional materials.  If you don’t, you may get a nasty gram in the mail asking you to write them a big check.  Even if you don’t end up writing them a check, you’ll end up paying a lawyer to assist you with the matter.  So take the little bit of time it takes to make sure you have the rights to use the images that you use in the manner that you use them.