Are You Decorating Your Web Pages With Radioactive Images? Bad Idea!

Despite the classic proverb, I think we can all agree that a picture isn’t worth a thousand words. On the other hand, a good illustration for your business website is clearly worth a couple of sentences—maybe even a paragraph. An appropriate illustration can clarify your intent, make your writing more memorable, and evoke a strong emotional response from the reader. That’s why we have long recommended adding graphics and photos to your content pages.

Many of our clients and partners have taken our recommendations to heart, and found that the perfect image gives a significant edge to each page. So far, so good.

What’s all too easy to forget in these days of universal video and cell phone photography is that every picture is somebody’s intellectual property. Graphic designs and photographic images are composed works of art. Their creators and owners (not always the same people) have specific legal rights, and you can be held financially accountable if you use these images without permission.

How Not to Get Clipped on Clip Art

One thing to bear in mind is that your business website—whether it’s sponsored by your medical practice, law firm, or other enterprise—is a marketing tool. It is intended as an extension of your commercial operations. Because the law sometimes makes a sharp distinction between commercial and noncommercial use of images, you must always follow the more restrictive guidelines for commercial art.

Of course, if you take a photo yourself, you can use it as you see fit; under U.S. law, you have an implicit copyright for the image. Likewise, a business has rights to use images produced by its employees in the course of their job duties; the creator cedes ownership rights to his or her employer. Yet even in these circumstances, it’s possible that people depicted in these images may have legal rights to how their representations are used. The safest course: if your photo includes people, make sure you obtain a signed release to use their images as you wish.

What about a friend’s artwork? You can use a friend’s photography on your website freely if you have permission. Obtaining a signed release granting you the right to use the art would be prudent; in most jurisdictions, it would be advisable to pay your friend a nominal amount (typically $1) for the right to use his work royalty-free for commercial purposes.

Commercial Art Services

There are many online services that provide inexpensive spot graphics and images. Four reputable agencies that deal with low-cost pictures are:

Many photo suppliers rely on a limited royalty-free licensing system for using pictures from their collections. Typically, a customer—that would be you, if you’re looking to acquire pictures to enhance your site—can reproduce an image without charge if using the picture for educational or nonprofit purposes. Uh-oh: that isn’t you, because you’re looking to use the art for commercial purposes. You will have to read the vendor’s policies carefully, but you can expect to pay a modest charge and give credit to the commercial service for each image you buy.

Using art from these services without permission will get you into trouble: heaps and heaps of trouble. Some of our partners have been sued (or threatened with suits) over the years for using images that don’t belong to them, and the compensation demanded is nowhere as cheap as a valid licensing agreement would have been in the first place. You could expect to pay hundreds and thousands of dollars in penalties. The big art licensing companies have very good search software at their disposal, so they will track down any illegal appropriation of content they own. Do not steal someone’s commercial artwork.

PhotoPin, Flickr, and Other Art Sharing Communities

PhotoPin is representative of a new wave of online organizations which enable free sharing of unique, exciting, and beautiful images. They may seem to be the perfect answers to your graphic needs. Unfortunately, that may not be the case. Currently, a significant portion of PhotoPin’s images is provided by Shutterstock, with all the legal entanglements for commercial users we have just discussed. Some of the other images on PhotoPin is accessible for commercial applications, but PhotoPin’s terms of use requires that all pictures taken from the site must have adequate attribution—which apparently consists of the name of the creator and attribution parties, a copyright notice, a license notice, a disclaimer notice, and a link to the material. Providing that much legal notification may outweigh the value of the image for your website.

Of course, Flickr has been a traditional resource for people desiring to share personal images with the world. Can’t you just borrow an image or two from somebody’s Flickr postings? Alas, that might not be possible or desirable. Flickr is now part of the Yahoo! family of companies, and one of the key provisions of Yahoo!’s terms of service stipulates that “You agree not to reproduce, duplicate, copy, sell, trade, resell or exploit for any commercial purposes, any portion or use of, or access to, the Yahoo Services,” including content. Flickr photos definitely count as content.

“Free” Art

Of course, with the profusion of personal web pages teeming with personal photos, not to mention other commercial, education, and news websites adding image-rich pages daily, some unethical business managers will be tempted to…well, “shoplift” is probably the best word for it. Copy and paste to appropriate the image for one’s own use. The chances of getting caught become remote if the image is pulled from an obscure site.

This isn’t just illegal and morally wrong, it’s also shortsighted and stupid. A business website exists to build up the ethical credibility of a brand. If a business manager is found to be shaving a few bucks off the corporate budget by stealing clip art, that instantly destroys the brand’s credibility for a minuscule advantage. This is not a tradeoff you should be willing to consider.

Pretty as a Picture

Simply put, your takeaway from this discussion is this: graphics help your webpage appeal, but you have only two options—either a business employee must take the pictures, or you should be prepared to budget a modest amount to buy commercial rights for the images you want.

If you have trouble finding exactly the right picture, Google is there to help you. Google’s reverse image search allows you to use a picture as your search query in order to find related pictures or similar images. This may allow you to locate the perfect illustration for your next blog or FAQ pages.

Have you had notable success or frustrating difficulties dealing with pictures on your business website? We encourage you to share your story with other DSS users in the comments section to this page. We’re just as excited as other business professionals to hear tips and warnings from your experience and perspective.

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