Q: For my business’ website, I often use fairly generic photos I find on Google Images or other internet sites. So long as the photos I use do not have the © notice, am I safe from claims of copyright infringement?
A: The short answer is no. You still may be subjecting your business to costly claims of copyright infringement. Under U.S. copyright law, photographers own a copyright in their works of original expression as soon as they reduce them to a tangible form — e.g., a digital photograph. By placing the appropriate © notice on their works, copyright owners garner certain benefits, but notice is not required for copyright infringement claims.
In short, just because photos are online without any protective language does not mean they are free to be copied and used.
Many photographers post their works on the internet, and some expressly dedicate their works to the public domain for others to freely use.
Many, however, do not intend to place their works in the public domain and will insist that you obtain a license or take certain steps to provide attribution before you use the photograph in any commercial context. If you use these photos without first obtaining a license or meeting the terms of usage, you may find yourself threatened with a copyright infringement claim or actually being sued in federal court for infringement.
Indeed, there is a thriving industry of entities, pejoratively referred to as “copyright trolls,” who purchase various copyrights to seemingly generic photos — landscapes, locations, animals, etc. They then diligently monitor the internet through complex reverse searching technology and trace the unauthorized reproduction of these photos on other websites. These copyright owners will sue or threaten suit to the unsuspecting users, forcing them to either settle with a negotiated payment or defend costly litigation.
If you are unsure of the photos you have used on your website, you should carefully review your website and remove any photos for which you do not have express permission to use.
Replace them with pictures you take yourself or with works from a subscription site such as Shutterstock or Creative Commons. Many such licenses are fairly inexpensive.
Should you find yourself threatened with claims of copyright infringement, seek legal guidance because many, but not all, such claims are viable.