Beware of copyright infringement
I am not a lawyer and the following is not legal advice. It is merely a warning to be careful about using information or images that you obtained from the Internet on your website or a blog. To protect yourself, do your own research in to the subject.
In the past, the Internet was for the free exchange of information. Websites put information on the Internet to be used by all. However, that time is long gone. Now, the Internet is a commercial enterprise used by people only to make money. What you used for free in the past, you must now pay to use.
Most major nations abide by the Berne Copyright Convention (the United States signed in 1988), which requires its signatories to recognize the copyrights of works of authors from other signatory countries in the same way it recognizes the copyrights within its borders. Therefore, any work infringed upon in a signatory country will be subject to the copyright law of that country regardless of in what country the work originated. The convention also requires signatories to provide strong minimum standards for copyright law and not to require formal registration.
In the United States, practically all original work is automatically copyrighted and protected, even it does not include a copyright notice. The usual form of a copyright notice is "Copyright (or the symbol ©) [the dates] by [owner of the works]. While facts and ideas may not be copyrighted, their expression and structure may be copyrighted. It is best to assume that everything is copyrighted and may not be used without the copyright holder’s express permission.
Copyright infringement is handled in civil courts rather than in criminal courts. In a civil court, the plaintiff only needs to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that you infringed upon the copyright; the plaintiff is not held to the beyond a reasonable doubt standard used in criminal courts. To prove copyright infringement, the owner of the copyright does not have to show you had the intent to infringe; if the work was copyrighted and you used the work without permission, then you are liable, no intent is necessary.
Invalid defenses to infringement
- I received permission from the owner of a website to use the work. One must be careful that the poster of the work is the originator of the work. If not, you are infringing on the copyright and are liable. If the poster copied the work and did not have permission to use the work, then he or she is also liable for infringement.
- The courts will feel sorry for me since I am just an ordinary person going up against a big corporation. If you infringed, the court must find you liable; however, they may give you a break on the amount of damages awarded.
- I removed the work from my website. Once you receive notice of copyright infringement, you should immediately remove the questioned material from the Internet to prevent further liability, but this will not affect your liability for the previous use.\
- I own the website but the person who designed the site is the one that put the work on the site. If copyrighted work is used on a website without permission, the owner of the website is liable for infringement no matter where the work was obtained or who put the work on the site. If the work was copied by you, you are liable. If a person employed by you, such as a webmaster or web designer used the work, you are liable. If the work was purchased from some online service or was a part of a template you copied or paid for, you are liable. The person or company you obtained the work from may also be liable for infringement, but that does not excuse you from liability.
A valid defense to infringement
I was making a “fair use" of the work. In the United States, "fair use" allows things such as commentary, parody, research, education, and news reporting, about copyrighted works to be used without the permission of the author as a part of your freedom of speech, if the work is referenced to the source. Fair use generally means using only a short excerpt with a reference to the source. Courts decide if fair use applies on a case-by-case basis.
Extenuating circumstances that may mitigate the damages awarded by a court
- I had no intent to infringe. This is not a defense, but it may lessen damages.
- I do not charge to use my website and I do not sell anything on the website. If you do not make money from the use of the infringement, it may lessen the damages.
- The work has no commercial value. In this case, the infringement is mostly technical and will probably not result in legal action.
In recent years, image licensing companies have been created that earn most of their money, not from the actual licensing of images, but from filing copyright infringement lawsuits. Some of their images may have previously been unlicensed and innocently used for years on websites, but now that they are copyrighted, they must be licensed for you to use them.
Many of their images are nothing special and most people would not pay the exorbitant licensing fees to use them. However, people may innocently download the images from another site, such as a site that says the images are free to use and then find themselves subject to copyright infringement.
Most of these companies are in other countries than the United States, but that does not deter them from going after anyone. They just hire local lawyers to pursue the cases in your local courts. They make their money from settlements or lawsuits, so they will pursue anyone.
To see how some of these companies operate, do web searches for topics such as “image copyright scams,” “image copyright rip-offs,” or “copyright infringement.”