How to Not Get Sued for Copyright Infringement: 1 Easy Step

You’ve heard you need to have lots of cool, enticing images to lure people over to your blog, to keep attention, to share on social. But… are you opening yourself up to a lawsuit?


It’s okay. No need to panic. But you do need to exercise caution and prepare yourself. Luckily, it’s easy.

You’re more than welcome to use just about any image you find online. What you are not allowed to do is steal any image you find online.

How do you know if you’re stealing? Well–did you tell anyone where you found the image? If you didn’t, it’s possible it’s stolen, and you could possibly, maybe get sued.

The likelihood of a lawsuit depends on what you’re doing with the image, what the image is, and how much the image owner cares. For example, if you’ve taken an image of Mickey Mouse and are selling your book by putting Mickey Mouse on it, you can fully, 100% expect to have Disney come pound on your door. If you make an adult-themed novel with Mickey Mouse on the cover and are giving it away, expect Disney to get you a lawsuit forthwith. But if you’re just putting an animated logo from Disney on your blog, you’re okay!

Disney logo

What’s the difference? A) You’re not making money off of it, B) it’s very clear you aren’t claiming you own any part of the logo, and C) the nature of blogs is transient and you’re unlikely to get a lot of attention or be a worthy target.

If you’re not sure if something is okay to post, there are two things you can do:

  1. Ask someone for permission first. This is particularly important with anything physical and permanent that you hope you make any kind of money on. That includes any images, portions of a song or poem, lines from a famous story, etc. It’s possible a short amount of text will be covered under the “Fair Use” doctrine, but it’s vague and a little hard to define and you probably just would be better not dealing with a lawsuit. Ask for permission first.
  2. Cite your sources. Come on, I know you know how to do this. Everyone had to write some kind of formal paper in school at some point or another. But when the internet came along and we had this endless list of images right at our fingertips, it got easier and easier to just copy something you found randomly.

That’s my main point. If you want to use an image or a paragraph or two from something you liked in your blog (something you give away for free and that is transient by nature), cite your sources. The prime way is to just…link back to the original. A link, in terms of Search Engine Optimization (or SEO), is one of the top ways a site develops a positive reputation in the search engines. When you link to a source for something cool, you’re signaling to Google & co that that place has good material. That helps them and you won’t get in trouble for stealing content.

See? It’s easy.

A little extra advice: really common things, like viral memes (like my dramatic gopher up there) probably have the original source buried in time. They just get picked up and run with. You’re okay on that. For similar reasons, you’re probably also okay on any TV or movie gifs or images you use on a blog. Just don’t try to sell them or you will be in trouble. If you find a cool image, photo, or illustration from something more niche, definitely cite your sources. Try to avoid finding images at “free” stock image places that look disreputable or from a forum–odds are good that they were stolen from somewhere else, and you’re the one who could be caught holding the bag. If you’re really worried about it, just take your own photos or sign up for a stock image site for your image needs. It’s better than a DMCA notice or a cease and desist letter, for sure.




Filed under Publishing

4 responses to “How to Not Get Sued for Copyright Infringement: 1 Easy Step

  1. You’re more than welcome to use just about any image you find online.

    Are you sure about this? While I’m not a lawyer, I’ve read up a lot on copyright and fair use, and the vast majority of articles, written by lawyers and copyright experts, directly contradict this. Using a copyrighted image (i.e. any image that was not explicitly released under a creative commons licence or in the public domain) without the owner’s permission is content theft. Period. Purpose of use, attribution, and whether or not the use is commercial can help you argue fair use if you are taken to court, but that’s the only place where fair use can be determined – in court, after you’ve already been sued.

    Quoting a short excerpt from a text is okay, as you only use an insubstantial part of the original, but you can’t just use a part of the image, so this exception doesn’t apply to images.

    I strongly recommend you check out these links (just two of many) on this topic:

    • You’re right, but “fair use” is all kinds of murky. The absolute safest thing to do is not use it or ask permission–particularly if you plan on making any money off it. But the web has become a bit of a Wild West, and a lot of content producers want their images, etc., shared for one reason or another, if only because a link to their site provides an SEO boost to them. In that way, you using their content helps them.
      It really depends on the situation, though. Definitely not if you’re making money off it, but if you’re illustrating something funny on your blog, you’re probably fine. It’s just not worth it to most content producers to scrape together the money to send a cease and desist. The decent thing to do is to provide a link and/or not abuse someone else’s content.

      • a lot of content producers want their images, etc., shared for one reason or another, if only because a link to their site provides an SEO boost to them. In that way, you using their content helps them.

        That first link I gave addresses this assumption specifically. Unless the content owner explicitly states they want you to do this, it’s not okay. Boosting the other guy’s SEO has no strength whatsoever as a legal defence, not even under fair use doctrine. And while I fully agree it’s decent to attribute and link back to the source, that does not automatically put you in the clear.

        And fair use is not really that murky. The DMCA clearly outlines what constitutes fair use and there’s a lot of case law that further defines it. As I said, fair use can only be determined by a court, and the courts have done that many times over.

        Frankly, there are more than enough public domain images and images licensed for re-use out there that it’s not necessary to steal content and hope the owners don’t sue. There are cases, like when reviewing a book, where one doesn’t have a choice of alternative image, but exceptions like that are rare. Most of the time a genuinely free image will do the job just fine.

      • “Most of the time a genuinely free image will do the job just fine.”
        This we agree on! I mostly wrote this post to discourage folks from just grabbing an image/quote/etc. off Google thoughtlessly. That is risky but a lot of people–especially bloggers–don’t seem to know.

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