When you start a business, you often have to produce marketing material for cheap or free. Luckily, it’s not that hard these days to find free photos, graphics, and fonts you can use. However, it’s also far too easy to stumble on things that look free, but are actually protected by copyright. As a small business owner, it’s vital to learn what copyright law requires of you and carefully comply.

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Why You Need to Know

In the wild, early days of the internet, it was possible to do an image search for something you liked, download it, and use it without getting into trouble. These days, owners of digital assets like photos often search for their work and get upset when they find it being used without payment or attribution. Consequences can range from being required to take the image down to a whole lawsuit.

This is because graphics and photos, even though they are digital, do still belong to the creator and are protected by copyright law. It’s up to the creator to decide who they want to share them with. Imagine, for instance, that you found a photo of yourself being used to sell a beauty product. You’ve never used the product, never heard of it, and never gave permission for them to use your face, yet there it is! Even when a photo seems fairly impersonal, like a stock photo of the beach, that is still a work of art to somebody. It takes effort and skills to produce a picture like that. If it were easy, you’d have gone out and done it yourself.

 Plenty of producers are happy to share their work widely for free, but even then, it’s important to be aware what conditions they’ve set on their work. This is called the license of the work. The creator makes it available under a specific kind of license, and it’s your job to abide by the conditions of that license.

Types of Licenses

When you search for stock photos, graphics, fonts, or anything else you need for your marketing materials, the first thing you need to find out is the type of license it has. That will tell you whether you need to pay to use the image and how you may use it. Nearly always, work available for use online will have the license right there to inspect. If there’s no license anywhere you can see, don’t use the image. It probably belongs to someone who does not want to share it at all.

A few common licenses include:

Royalty Free License

Many people think this license means “free to use.” Actually, a royalty is an ongoing payment the owner charges, often as a fraction of what you make while using the image. Most business owners have no interest in paying ongoing royalties for a stock photo. So they choose royalty free images, which they can pay for one time and use forever after that. This is a common way to buy images on stock photo sites, either per-image or by buying an ongoing subscription. Any other limitations on the image, like whether you can put it on a coffee cup and sell it, will be mentioned in the license the stock photo site shows you.

Creative Commons License

A creative commons license generally stipulates that you can use the image for free, but you must provide attribution. That’s as easy as putting the creator’s name or link in a caption. This allows the creator to get more visibility for their work in return for letting you use it. Make sure you read the terms of the license, as not all creative commons licenses are the same. Some forbid you to use their work for commercial applications, which means you can’t use them for your business. Others waive the expectation of being attributed and you can freely use the photo wherever you like.

Public Domain

Public domain images are the only truly free pictures. These images are considered to belong equally to everyone. This includes many photos taken by the government, photos whose copyright expired, or photos the creator chose not to copyright at all. So far, AI generated images also fit in this category—they are not copyrighted because no human created them. You can do whatever you like with a public domain image, including sell merchandise with it.

When You Mess Up

If you accidentally use an image incorrectly, you can expect to be notified. While legally, the image owner can sue you for copyright infringement, in most cases you will receive a milder notice first. This often takes the form of a DMCA takedown notice. The image owner contacts you by email or through your ISP and asks you to take down the offending material.

If you’re sure the material is yours, you can send a counter-notice back, explaining why you think they are wrong. However, most of the time the DMCA notice is perfectly valid. It’s likely that you simply didn’t notice the requirements of the license when you downloaded the photo. In that case, all you need to do is promptly take down the image and replace it with one that is either actually free or properly paid for.

A few DMCA scams do exist. One popular scam looks like a DMCA email, but instead of asking for you to take the image down, they ask you to add a link. In reality, they don’t own the image, don’t represent any client, and simply want more websites to host a link to their content. To check for this kind of scheme, search for the name of the legal firm, the name of the client, and other appearances of the same photo elsewhere on the internet. If the client isn’t the real owner, you don’t have to respond at all.

A DMCA notice can be a good wakeup call to manage your image licenses better. Always check the license and follow the requirements. To make it easy on yourself, use one or two stock photo sites exclusively. Subscribing to a royalty-free photo service can be well worth the money in both photo quality and peace of mind.

Help for Your Small Business

Starting a business can come with piles of complications you never even thought of before. Habits you had as a private individual have to be abandoned when you’re trying to be a serious business. To learn the ropes of running your own company, find a financial advisor who works specifically with businesses. This person can explain to you everything you need to know about getting your business off the ground. To meet the right business financial advisor for you, contact us today.

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