The Risks of Using Copyright Protected Images for your Business & How to Avoid Them

Understand the Risks of using Copyrighted Images in your Business

Visual media is a useful way to quickly grab your audience’s attention. A recent study has illustrated that image posts receive 120-180% more engagement than text based posts.[1] Whether you’re using a photograph on your blog or a graphic on social media, it’s well known that image based content is a valuable digital marketing tool.

What is less well known however, are the risks involved with sourcing images online. For many years the internet was the wild west of copyright infringement. With people freely downloading music, movies and artwork without fear of repercussion, it seemed harmless to do a quick google search and pull an image from another site to use for yourself.  Many business owners are totally unaware of the massive fines involved for using unauthorised ‘copy and paste’ visual content.

“It’s just a small blog, what’s the harm with using a pic from flickr or  google images?”

– Unsuspecting Business Owner

In most cases, the use of unauthorised material by business owners is not done with malicious intent. It’s either done out of ignorance of copyright protection, or under the assumption that content is safe to use with attribution.

But the fines for this lack of awareness can be substantial. In Australia it’s not uncommon to be fined thousands of dollars for using a few copyright protected images on your blog. Even if the blog is years old, if it is published on your site, you’re liable for a hefty penalty. Similarly, if you’ve used unauthorised imagery on your social media, either recently or in years past, it can be traced back to you and you can get a nasty letter in the mail demanding payment.

In the last couple of years there has been a big push towards highlighting the widespread use and download of unauthorised content on the internet. Streaming services like Netflix and Spotify have appeared to combat film and audio piracy, similarly websites have also appeared offering ‘free’ images under certain types of copyright permissions.  Artists can choose to release their content under a Creative Commons licence indicating they are happy for it to be used for certain purposes without first needing permission[2] . But you still need to educate yourself on how these copyright permissions work, because if you use content falsely, or without correct attribution – you’re still breaking copyright law. The most widely used standard conditions for use of content released under Creative Commons are:

Share-Alike: material under a share-alike provision can be used, modified, and distributed freely on condition that anything derived from it is bound by the same terms. This is the most flexible of the Creative Commons conditions and the best one to use for your digital marketing efforts.

Non-Commercial: restricts commercial use of content.  There is a big grey area with a Non-Commercial copyright restriction. Non-Commercial is defined as “not primarily intended for or directed towards commercial advantage or monetary compensation.” [3] so you need to be very careful where you use material that falls under this licence.

Attribution: requires the creator of the material to be attributed anytime their work is used. Many free image sites use Attribution when promoting the download and use of its content. With this type of Creative Commons licence you need to be careful where you source your images and how you share them, especially on social media.

No Derivatives:  restricts people from making ‘derivative works’ from this content (like altering an image or remixing an audio track.) But you can still copy the material without permission, provided it remains in its original form.

So where to from here?

If you’ve been using unauthorised imagery in your business there are ways to mitigate any damage and avoid fines.  Firstly you need to go through your online marketing channels and remove any content that was not sourced or attributed correctly. This means going through the archives of all your website articles, social media posts and any other content that you’ve used to promote your organisation. Next, if you don’t want to purchase new images, replace them  with ones taken from ‘Free Image’ sites. Make sure you read the fine print when using any of these sites to ensure you are using the content correctly. Some of our favourite free image sites are:





The rule of thumb when using images for your digital marketing is, if you don’t know where it comes from and what licences protect it, no matter how small your business blog or social following – Don’t Use It!  






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