The saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but using an image or picture without permission will cost the same, or more, in dollars when you don’t get permission to use it.
For example, a nonprofit was gearing up for an annual fundraising campaign. Everything was ready and all promotional materials had been drafted. But something was missing from the webpage — photographs.
So the nonprofit’s employee did what any reasonable person would do and turned to an internet search of images, finding the perfect photo to capture their message.
But, because the nonprofit did not get the green light to use the picture from its owner, the nonprofit was sued for copyright infringement when the photo appeared in a reverse image search.
While using images is a great way to relay a message without using words, and can add some creative flair, it’s important to remember that photographs are creative work, and are subject to copyright protections.
Using a photo your nonprofit does not own or have permission to use could spell trouble — and a lawsuit.
In fact, there are groups, known as “copyright trolls,” who actively seek out unauthorized usage of images — and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of their allegations and demands.
While the settlement value may not seem as high as other claim-worthy actions, costs can quickly multiply when each image becomes a separate demand and has a separate settlement value.
What’s more, it doesn’t matter if you are a small-budget nonprofit or a larger organization — the trolls show no mercy, using scare tactics and litigation strategies to get paid for their findings.
While some nonprofits may argue they have protection under the Fair Use Doctrine, beware!
According to the United States Copyright Office, fair use is a legal doctrine that promotes the freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances — but not all circumstances.
Proceed with caution and always consult legal counsel before using an image and relying on this doctrine.
Safer Ways to Source Images
Here are a few tips how you can avoid a claim or protect your nonprofit when using images:
- When finding an image you want to use, get written permission (email works, too) from the owner of that image. (Note: Permission may not belong to the site posting the image, so you’ll have to do some digging.)
- Use public domain sources, such as Unsplash, where you may find free or cost-effective options without risking copyright violations.
- Use stock photos through subscription programs (like Microsoft 365 or Adobe).
- If you cannot determine the correct owner of the photo/image, select a different image.
- Take your own photographs (don’t forget to get consent from any people you wish to post).
- Don’t pay attention to images other organizations use — they may not have permission to use the image. Unless you have express permission, you shouldn’t use it.
- Citing sources does not equate permission. Even if you give credit to the source, this honorable mention won’t amount to much if you still don’t have permission.
When using a photo that your nonprofit did not take, be sure to properly document permission(s) received. Here are a few tips on how to protect yourself here, too.
- Keep a copy of the image with the received permission and be sure to note when the image was first posted (you’ll need the date when filing any claims).
- If you are asked to take the image down, take it down immediately — even if you believe you have permission. Document the date you took the image down.
If You Get a Demand Letter
If you receive a demand letter, or get sued, take the following steps:
- File a claim: Notify your broker or use the “report a claim” link on the NIA Member Portal.
- Take down any images that are mentioned in the suit and note the date and time when you removed them. (If you have permission, you likely will be able to reestablish the images, but speak to the NIA claims team first.)
- Collect all documentation expressly providing permission to use each image.
NIA is here to support you and has dedicated claims teams on standby to assist you in the event you receive letters threatening you about images you have in your online or other promotional materials.