Dear Dr. C:
I used Google’s image search and found a really great photo that I saved. It does not have a © notice on it. Now I want to use it on my web site. I may also have done the same thing a “few” times before. Is that OK?
— Anonymous (for obvious reasons)
You may already be a winner! Except you may have won the copyright infringer of the year award — not something you really wanted.
Under United States law and international treaties, copyright automatically attaches the moment a work is created. In the case of a photo, as soon as the camera clicks, the photographer has rights that will last for her life, plus another 70 years (or 95 years if she was working for a corporation in taking the photo.) No formal registration or notice is required (as was the case before the law was changed in the mid-1990s.) Copyright means that the owner has the right to control, among other things, the making and distribution of copies, as well as the public display of the work.
Merely because a photo is publicly available does not mean that it is in the “public domain” where you are free to do anything you like with it. So, how can you use this great photo on your web page, but not run afoul of the long arm of the law by making an illegal copy?
Rather than use a photo for which you have no rights, you can search for images that are in the public domain (because the owner has said so) or licensed for public use under the Creative Commons or GPL licenses. You can also obtain images for a fee from a stock photo house or clip art company. Even easier, you can link to the original photo from your web site. That way, you’re not making a copy of the photo at all, you’re just instructing people reading your web page to see the photo from the original source. However, it’s always a good idea to obtain permission from the owner of the image before linking. Just be sure that you are linking to the original image and not to another infringing copy.
If you have specific questions, ask an attorney at LW&H. They’ll help you sort it all out.
–Lawrence Husick, Esq.