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Don’t Cut THIS Business Expense During a Recession!

don't cut this expense
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Part of our Moving Your Business from Survive to Thrive Series

Entrepreneurs and small businesses are looking to tighten their belts and trim expenses to weather the recession, which is a solid business practice. I’m doing that and I know you are too. Even if it’s only a few dollars a month, all of those things can add up, as we all know.

We’ve mentioned why marketing expenses should be the last thing to cut during a recession (less competition can mean your marketing is even more effective!), but there are some smaller expenses that may not seem quite so important and you feel comfortable cutting away.

A stock photo membership shouldn’t be where you cut – it can quickly and easily cost you a LOT more in the long-term if you don’t pay attention!

I’ve shared about using photos that you find online before, and had the question come up again recently with a client.

Keep in mind, I am not a lawyer, and also obviously not a copyright lawyer. I have been working with graphics and other copyrighted material for decades and I do try to keep knowledgeable because I want to make sure the work I provide, my clients are protected (and me!) – and over the years I’ve set a fairly simple way to understand this confusing topic (it’s more confusing than you realize … and also more simple at the same time).

don't cut this expense

There’s a lot of myths out there when you’re using content such as drawings or vector art, icons or actual photos, videos or music and even text. All of these things are protected under copyright laws, and there’s a lot of misinformation such as things like:

  • It’s okay to use any of these as long as I’m not directly making money – I can post it money on a website that’s not directly a business, or use it as my logo or print it on t-shirts as long as I give them away
  • It’s okay to use Google images because they’re posted so that means they’re okay to use because they’re in the public domain

Both of these are FALSE.

It doesn’t matter if you’re actually making money off of whatever, if you include any type of copyrighted image, photo, video, music or text – you can still be legally and still be financially liable. Even if you’re not a business, not making any money, and you’re just giving it away.

Also, just because something like an image is on Google doesn’t mean that it’s in the public domain or that copyrights have been lifted. Google searches pretty much every single website out there – trillions of websites! And puts in their search all of these images they’re finding on these websites. Just because you find it online doesn’t mean you can use it. (If that were the case, my profile photo would be a star like Jennifer Aniston.)

People have also found that when you do a Google image search, there’s some advanced search fields you can use that will allow you to choose “copyright free” images … but even ‘copyright free’ doesn’t mean you can use it for free.

Confusing, right? I know.

I’m going to give you five tips that should help you navigate this a bit better. But again, I’m not a lawyer, so whenever you have legal questions surrounding this or other topics, that’s who you need to be asking.

Public Domain

Things in the public domain. This is actually a VERY small amount of items, so you can never assume that something that you find online is in the public domain just because you think it might be.

For the most part, these are going to be items that are more than 70 years old that heirs to the original creator (or that person if still alive) have not renewed the copyright. Just because the item is over 70 years old won’t mean that it’s in the public domain, since it’s possible the copyright was renewed.

It can also be things that are owned by our government – perhaps they were images that were generated while someone was working for a branch of government as part of their job duties – at this point it becomes government property which can make it in the public domain. This doesn’t include things owned by a different government, as they all have their own laws.

There are also times when artists release their rights on their work, sometimes just to get exposure since the more people who use it, the more exposure they get. Those items may be considered in the public domain.

All of these items will or should be clearly marked as in the public domain and free to be used. This is also why simply doing a Google search and finding the image tiles you see in search results won’t give you the full information on the copyright status of that actual image, video, text etc.

Copyright Free

Simply being noted as “copyright free” doesn’t mean that you can use it. We’re exploring more below.

Royalty Free

This also doesn’t mean that it’s free for your use. Yeah I know that word “free” gets confusing.

To explain a royalty … if you ever watch Shark Tank and Mr. Wonderful says how he wants a royalty from the business – that’s a recurring payment. “Royalty free” just means that it’s free of that type of recurring payment, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to pay to use it.

Even if the item you want to use is copyright free and royalty free, it doesn’t mean that you can use it without attribution.

Attribution Required

Hooray, you’ve gotten over the first two hurdles and found an image that you don’t have to pay for, right? Not so fast…

Creative Commons has created a universal or standard level of copyrights presented in normal English so that most people can understand when and how an item can be used. If there is some type of copyright on the item you’re considering, their license information will note what that type of license means, so can look that information up and probably even understand it (thank you plain English).

Some of the items, such as images, that you find that are royalty free may still require attribution, where you must put a particular link or text with the item that gives credit to the original artist. Not having that text or link – and exactly what is included depends upon what the artist request – you can still get in trouble.

Even if you’ve checked on copyright free, royalty free, and does it require attribution … it still may not mean that the item is available for…

Commercial Use

Some items are available to use without payment for educational use. Most copyrights have different ability to be used in these circumstances – but it still does not mean educating things related to your business! For example, this post you’re reading is educational, but it’s still for business use – so yes the image you see above was purchased from a stock photo site.

Some items also allow you to use it on a personal project, which doesn’t include things you’re distributing (such as handing out tshirts for your kid’s soccer team) but you could perhaps have it in your house. But any time your business is involved, the item you’re considering has to be available for commercial use – even if you’re not directly selling something with the item.

“Free” images means:

  • Can you use it for commercial use?
  • Does it require attribution?
  • Can you use it without paying a royalty, or paying only a one-time fee?
  • Is it copyright free? Which can mean some of those levels of Creative Commons license that allows some method for you to use the item.

If htat hasn’t confused you enough … there’s also the case of

Photos and Videos with a Person’s Image

Even if you have licenses or releases that allow you to use the photo or video for commercial use … is there a model release?

Using a person’s likeness, even though that’s not directly copyright, that can be another layer on this whole issue. A lot of professional photographers, especially when they are providing photos and videos to stock sites, have obtained that model release – but it doesn’t mean they all have. And that can be a really hard piece to determine. Some of the more professional and robust stock photo sites may include that information, but otherwise you may not know.

I remember a woman in an article I read online saying that some weight-loss center had taken a photo of her off of her Facebook profile, and they were using it in their advertising. She was so angry because she had no idea who they were, they were in another state, she had never talked to anyone, and they were profiting off of using her likeness. So the model release can be another issue. (It didn’t help that she was feeling like she had put on a few pounds, and of course that’s the image they used as a “before” type of post – which just made her feel worse).

One common way around worrying about photo copyrights is to only use photos that you have personally taken. This can be a great way to make sure you meet all the rules. Yet when supplying your own photos, if there are real people in the pictures, you need a signed model release on file. Because even family and friends can have a falling out, and you’d hate some time later to end up in a worse pickle because you had not obtained a release.

Again, it’s another legal matter where you’d want to consult with an attorney.

Why All of Thi$ Matter$ – It’$ Important

You may think none of these things above matter because no one is going to find out.

“I’m only going to post it on my social media or website and it won’t be a big deal as long as I just post a link where I found it.”

“I don’t get a lot of traffic on my website so no one will see it.”

“I’m only using it on social media and everyone does it.”

“I got it from a website that didn’t have a copyright disclaimer in their footer”

Yeah … no. None of these comments are valid.

Keep in mind that the other website may have paid for a license for that image or video which will likely not cover your use of it.

Also keep in mind that logos of companies, although sometimes they may not care if they’re used when you’re talking positive about their product since they may see it as good publicity. But if you use one of their images or logo, you can still run into problems. Just because they ignored it and didn’t bother today doesn’t mean that’s how they will feel tomorrow.

So What Does All of This Mean?

A lot of artists belong to these artist conglomerates and groups, and these groups have software that continually scans the internet looking for specific meta data that’s embedded in the file; and there are also more sophisticated AI methods to actually scan for the image, music or video themselves.

The group the artists belong to are then the ones that initiate copyright claims on their behalf, or takedown notices, or in some cases lawauits.

Copyright Claims on YouTube

One of the most common places we see this is on YouTube, primarily with music in a video. This is because YouTube has built into their platform an entire copyright claim section for creators.

This often happens when you use a clip of music in a video, whether that’s by design or even when you’re in a public place and there’s background music playing that ends up into your video.

The artist, or the group representing the artist, can file a copyright claim on your video.

There’s a few things the creator can request when they file a copyright claim?

  • They can file a takedown notice so that the video has to be completely removed, although this is a bit more rare.
  • Other times, the video can still be posted, but it can’t be shown in some countries.
  • Or it can be that they want those few seconds of your video where their music resides to be silenced, which can pose a problem if you’re speaking and some of that speaking is muted – you may be missing some of the most important pieces of your video. In this case I would recommend editing and re-uploading the video especially when you don’t already have a ton of views.
  • A bigger hit on those businesses who have monetization on their YouTube channels, the video can no longer be used for your own monetization – all monies will go to the creator. This can also mean, even if you didn’t turn on monetization on that particular video because for some reason you don’t want ads to appear on it, it can now show ads and that revenue will go to the creator. It can also means that there are ads for direct competitors or perhaps something that your brand would never want advertised connected to you.

Demand for Compensation

The bad thing that can happen is that you can receive a demand for payment.

I’ve seen this happen – I worked for a company that received a demand for a couple of images on the website, and I had to research and dig through all of the emails from my predecessors (more than one!) to find license information on the images in question. That can be a real pain, especially if good records haven’t been kept, or it was only sent via email and that email is no longer available (which can happen when employees leave). If you cant prove that the purchase was made for the license, you will likely owe the money.

This isn’t a small $10 or $30 that it may have been to purchase the image initially – the request was for $10,000 per image.

There’s also usually no grace period such as “we’ll give you 7 days to take it down” … or no thing saying “if you can prove you’re not using it to make money” … nope. It’s a demand for payment, and if you cannot prove that you purchased the license, and you don’t make that payment, then it can go to further legal actions. The groups who manage these creators have a whole team of lawyers standing by to do this, and they can take you to court and get awarded monetary damaged much larger than even that 10K request we saw.

The best thing you can do, even if seems like it’s a pain to pay $5 or $10 for a photo, or like I do where I pay a monthly fee to a stock photo subscription site, you may think save that little bit now and I’ll just use some of those “copyright free” photos. As we noted above, it’s not that simple, and in the long run it may actually be much cheaper to pay that $10 or $30 to avoid a 10K fee, or in court where damaged could easily be 150K or more.

The best advice is if you’re not sure about an image, video, music or whatever it may be is JUST DON’T USE IT until you find out how you can legally use it, and make sure that you’re covered.

This is one of those expenses where it’s worth paying for a subscription, or using a couple of the few stock photo sites that have images that are copyright free, royalty free, do not require attribution and are available for commercial use. Even if you’re using these types of sites, you want to personally verify the ability for you to use the item since it could be possible that one slips through the cracks.

And never, ever, ever use an image directly off of Google.

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What are your thoughts?