A few months ago, I received a hotter-than-usual email in my inbox. Rather than a letter from an angry reader, this was the draft of a legal document accusing Baptist News Global of copyright infringement and demanding $30,000 as settlement.
That will get your attention.
Before I tell you our story, I want to explain why this should matter to you. If you are in any way responsible for publishing online content — website, Facebook page, Instagram, blog — for your church or nonprofit, beware. When you pick up images from the internet without permission and without attribution, you are exposing yourself and your organization to tremendous financial risk. Whatever you think you’re saving by not subscribing to a stock image service, you are wrong.
I know this is a real problem because I’m looking at your websites and blogs every week as I scour for ideas. And the number of unattributed images I see churches and pastors and nonprofits using is staggering. I have spent hours trying to track down the source of that perfect image you used that would fit our next article, only to discover the same image used by 10 different churches without a source attribution to be found.
Here at BNG, we are extremely careful about image acquisition and attribution. Exceedingly careful. And yet, we got tagged.
We subscribe to five news photo and stock image services, as each of the 35 or so articles we publish every week carries at least one photo with it. We do not pluck random images off the internet. Sometimes, we’ll use an image from Wikimedia Commons and note the image is in the public domain.
“The number of unattributed images I see churches and pastors and nonprofits using is staggering.”
Earlier this year, we needed an image to accompany a unique story about a news event that happened at a prominent church. I went to that church’s website and found the right image posted there and I assumed — remember what your teacher said about “assume” — it was safe to use.
It was not, but I didn’t know that until three months later. When the $30,000 demand letter appeared in my email inbox.
The freelance photographer who had taken the photo is represented by a company that specializes in finding cases of copyright infringement and then scaring the bejesus out of alleged offenders until they pay up. This is their entire business model. And it works because of the vast image identification powers of the internet.
Whether publication of the image in question was innocent or not does not matter. U.S. copyright law automatically assumes harm. The owner of the image does not have to prove harm to have a case.
Was our challenged photo worth $30,000? Absolutely not. Did we publish it knowing it was a copyrighted image? Absolutely not. Did we seek to defraud or harm the photographer? Absolutely not.
When informed of the alleged infringement, we immediately took down the photo. But that didn’t matter. The mere publication of it — even if no one saw it — is basis for a claim under U.S. copyright law.
Settling this claim took months of legal wrangling, the employment of attorneys and a lot of handwringing. The final cost was less than $30,000 but still way too expensive. We had no choice but to pay even though in our view we had acted innocently.
“We had no choice but to pay even though in our view we had acted innocently.”
This could happen to you or your church or your nonprofit.
Here’s how to avoid being accused of copyright infringement:
- Use only images you know where they have come from and whose source you can document.
- If free versions are not available from those who own the copyright — such as museums or educational institutions — be willing to pay for what you use. There are cheap options available for most things.
- Make use of images within the public domain, often found on sites such as Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons. If an image is marked as being in the public domain, it is safe to use.
- Do not randomly lift any image from the internet. Ever. Not even clipart.
- Document the image source in a caption. Every time. Always. Even if it’s a public domain image. If you can’t cite the source, don’t use it.
Legally, the same rules apply to uses such as slide shows and videos often used in contemporary worship services. Unless you’re showing those images online, it’s not likely you’ll be caught. But you still should do the right thing anyway. Just because you are a church does not grant you an exemption to copyright law.
Intentional copyright infringement deprives artists of the income they need and deserve. So that’s an ethical issue. Now we know that even unintentional copyright infringement comes with a high cost, no matter how ethical you think you may be.
Next time you’re tempted to grab an image off the internet and share it, remember our story and reconsider. This could happen to you.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.