Dear Doc:

Last month, you explained how to avoid legal issues concerning the use of music in podcasts. While that was interesting, many more ugly “lawyer letters” stem from use of images on websites and newsletters. Do you have any sage advice on how not to be on the receiving end of a nasty-gram from some copyright attorney?

Flattering Imitator

Dear Flat:

You are right. Many of LW&H’s clients have, at one time or another gotten a letter from a lawyer accusing them of “unauthorized copying, distribution or public display” of an image. These images have appeared in websites, blogs, emails, social media posts, and in physical publications like brochures, leaflets and booklets. Generally, the lawyer letter contains an offer to “license” the use for a seemingly outrageous sum, often several thousand dollars. The letters also inform the recipient that just one use of an image may result in the award of up to $150,000 in damages plus attorney’s fees if the matter goes to court. Getting one of these letters is enough to bring on serious indigestion (as well as a quick call to the Doc.)

There are, however, a few ways to avoid getting one of these legal bluebirds… as they say, “An ounce of prevention is worth a gigantic legal bill.” So here goes…

The best way to avoid being accused of copyright infringement is, you guessed it, not to infringe a copyright. So if you don’t know where an image comes from, treat it just like you’d treat a hot dog lying in the street – stay far away from it. No good can come of such things. Just finding an image by using a Google search is the same thing. Just because the image is somewhere on the Internet is not a good reason for you to pick it up. The owner of the image is using the same search engines, and will find you.

So, how do you know which images are ok to use?

First, start by assuming that every image is subject to copyright, whether or not it has a copyright notice. Copyright is an automatic right that attaches as soon as an image is created. (The big exception to this rule is that images created by and for the United States federal government are NOT subject to copyright.) The safest way is, of course, to use an image in which YOU own the copyright (like the one here, which is owned by the Doc.)

Using Online Images

If you wish to use an image that is protected by copyright, you’ll need permission (called a “license”) from the copyright owner. Companies that provide images are called “stock image houses” and they offer both single images, packages of multiple images, and various formats and time periods (single publication, perpetual rights, etc.) Take a look at ShutterStock. There are also photograph archives that provide the same kinds of services. The largest and best known of these is Getty Images. If you see an image on the Internet and you’re not sure where it originates, you can use Google image search to identify the source.

The Doc loves Unsplash because they have a large library of great images, and EVERY ONE IS FREE AND LEGAL! Other similar sites include: and

You may also try to find images that are licensed under the Creative Commons (CC) system. The WikiMedia Commons site is a great source of many such images.

Now that you know about images and copyrights, you may want to search for free images online. A Google image search can help to ensure that image results that are displayed are those which are marked as free to use. To do this, start with Google’s advanced search option. The search filter is called “usage rights” and you may select images are free to share, modify or to use commercially. (N.B., this is not a guaranty of finding free images because even giant Google can make mistakes, so it pays to dig a little deeper.)

The Doc hopes that this advice will keep you out of copyright hot water. If you should receive one of those dreaded letters, however, or if you’d rather have good advice and assistance before you publish, give the attorneys at LW&H a call. They absolutely love this stuff, and use only the finest licensed images on their firm website and in this newsletter.

Until next month,
The “Doc”

–Lawrence A. Husick, Esq.

*Originally posted on July 23, 2020