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What You Can Do to Avoid Copyright Crime

By Sara Bedal |

Launching a website for your small business isn't exactly rocket science: You figure out what your key messages are, write the copy, find suitable images, plunk everything into a template and—voilà! Or, you hire a firm to do the work for you.

Whichever route you choose, beware—you may be infringing on someone's copyright and not even know it.

Poor judgment, no defence

Webcopyplus, a Vancouver-based website copywriting firm, recently learned this lesson the hard way.  In May 2010, one of its copywriters downloaded a scenic beach shot using Google Images to accompany a client's tourism blog. The photo had no copyright notice so the copywriter naturally assumed it was "public domain."

Bad assumption. In December 2010, Webcopyplus' client received a formal cease-and-desist demand and a copyright infringement claim letter. Specifically, the client was required to:

  • Immediately cease and desist all unlicensed uses of the image and delete all copies from computers and digital storage devices; and
  • Remit almost $4,000 to a lawyer's trust account.

The cost of infringement

The image was removed within minutes, and a letter of apology sent. Negotiations had begun.

Webcopyplus made what it thought was a generous counter offer of $1,925. The firm arrived at this figure by estimating a photographer's fee of about $100 a month and adding it to three hours of legal work (at $400 an hour).

Not good enough. To make matters worse, the lawyer added $2,500 more in legal fees to Webcopyplus' bill because the firm had requested proof of registration and ownership of the photo under dispute.

Webcopyplus ultimately settled for $4,000 in order to salvage its relationship with its client.

"Ironically, since our start in 2006, this was the only image we ever acquired for a client's project," says Rick Sloboda, senior web copywriter with Webcopyplus.
"Had we purchased a photo from a stock image website, it would have spared us a lot of time and money. We were taught an expensive lesson." According to the firm, the digital photo retails for about $10.

What's a small business to do?

If you've found a photo or graphic that would be ideal for your website, you'll have to determine whether or not the image is licensed. This may require some research on your part but image identification technology can help you.

TinEye, for instance, is a free, online search engine that scans the Internet for images. Its pattern recognition algorithms create a one-of-a-kind "fingerprint" for each image and adds it to an index.

Users can send an image to TinEye and the technology analyzes its characteristics. If there's a match with any images in the index, it compiles a list of websites worldwide that include that image—or a cropped, re-sized or edited version of it.

"TinEye simply tells you it's on the web," says Leila Boujnane, co-founder and chief executive officer of Idée Inc., the Toronto-based company behind TinEye. It's then up to you to track down copyright details.

Small business owners and marketers may also want to look for images that fall under "fair use," a term used in U.S. copyright law that permits limited reproduction of copyrighted material without receiving permission. As well, it may be worth consulting Creative Commons, a non-profit organization that provides alternative licences to the standard "all rights reserved."

The bottom line? "If it isn't your image, it belongs to someone else," says Boujnane. It's up to you to do due diligence—and potentially save yourself money and legal headaches.

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