Images and the Internet (Part 1 of 3)

A picture speaks a thousand words – and sometimes even more.  So it makes sense that use of imagery in the world of the internet abounds all around us.  Beyond the use of a cell phone, the internet is arguably the primary means or medium of communication, and with today’s smartphones, the two are completely intertwined.  Certainly the use of images is the whole thrust behind sites like ‘Pinterest’ – share what you like/love/are interested in by “pinning” a picture.  And Facebook realized the value of images when it paid $1 Billion+ for Instagram – now every time a photo is “shared” (or uploaded) on Facebook, it becomes a page of advertising.  And since we use technology in an unprecedented manner to instantly share an image for free, that’s not a bad investment.

In the internet sense, we use images because they help us communicate, and sometimes (even oftentimes) more effectively than mere writing.  Quite frankly, if an image did not have any value on a website, it wouldn’t be used and websites would be havens for bland text.  But what about when you are not the source of the image (i.e., what does it mean to use, or copy, an image that you did not take or shoot)?  Legally speaking, this is an immediate concern because it is axiomatic in the US that various exclusive rights vest with a person that takes a photo.

Most problematic at the outset is the relative ease to “copy” and “paste” an image – about 0.5 seconds to make a couple mouse clicks.  Even when an image is “protected”, examples as to the great lengths a person will go to circumvent the protection is easily found on the web.  See article here.

Through the aftermath of representing clients, it has become readily apparent to me that there exists a common misconception in regard to understanding the need to verify the source of an image.  In hindsight, this isn’t all that surprising when I think about and compare all the “file sharing” during the heyday of Napster, presumably because most didn’t know (or didn’t want to know) that it was illegal to do so.  In its peak month (February 2001) there were over 2.79 billion illegal music files shared over Napster.

Today major internet search engines, such as Google and Bing, are the modern legalized Napsters of the internet – just enter a couple keywords, and tah-dah, there’s an image(s) legally shared and ripe for the picking.  And it readily follows that copying results therefrom.  As just one recent example, when I confronted a party who clearly used a client’s image without permission, the response was “we get our images from Bing”, the mindset being that Bing – because it shared an image in a display of search results – was somehow now a licensor of the image.  And, well, because it did not say there was a fee, it must be free.  It never ceases to amaze me the depth to which the human psyche will go to convince itself that an act one is undertaking is justified.

In the ordinary course of things, including in the business world, when it comes to “free” I find there’s an overwhelming level of skepticism.  I mean, we are routinely subjected to SPAM, scams, telemarketers, etc. that requires us to be diligent.  I am sure I am not the only one who has received an email telling me I have a long-lost rich relative in some obscure African country.

But to my amazement when it comes to an image(s), especially when the image is part of a message we wish to convey on the internet, the mind becomes powerful in whatever matter is needed to convince oneself, if it doesn’t say I can’t use it – it must be “free” and o.k. to use.  The second this justification occurs, the extra undertaking needed to verify a source falls to the wayside.

Unfortunately an image always has a source, and oftentimes, the source (or rights holder) has an interest in the image's use well beyond “free”.  Image “source” will be the topic of Part 2 of 3.