If you create content for the digital arena, you understand that it's a visual medium. You want high-quality images to accompany whatever you create, post, tweet, or share. But even if a quick Google search yields the most perfect image that you could imagine for your post, don't use it.

One wrong copy-and-paste image slapped onto something you create, whether for yourself or clients, could cost you big time.

Don't trust that Internet offer of free images

Your Google search for an image may yield banner headlines that promise royalty-free images yours for the taking. But the truth is that it's not Google's responsibility to ensure the accuracy of those claims. It's yours.

Moreover, if you choose to use an image irresponsibly, you and the clients you serve could wind up in a whole lot of hot water.

The image rule you should follow is simple. If you didn't create the image or purchase it from a reliable source that holds the legal right to distribute it such as Getty Images, do not use it! It's really that simple.

If it's created, it's copyrighted

Copyright law and its power over material on the Internet may still be evolving, but one aspect is crystal clear... The copyright holder has more rights than you do.

Once upon a time, an artist or photographer needed to register his or her work with the US Copyright Office to ensure it was protected. Today, artists may still choose to pay the nominal fee to copyright their work. But even if they don't, they are still protected. And you're not.

Let me paint a plausible scenario.

Your intern or newly-minted grad (let's call him George) pulls an image from the Internet to accompany a blog post he wrote. Now, George has stellar academic credentials and would never, ever, ever claim something as his own that wasn't. Fresh from college, though, he understands "fair use" to mean that as long as he gives something proper attribution, he's covered. He even thought to scan the chosen image for the little © that would indicate it's copyrighted and therefore completely off-limits. Well-done, George.

What George didn't know was that this particular image has been used a few times online and someone before him thought to crop out that pesky little ©. It was copyrighted; George just didn't know it.

George also missed the company training that specifically told him he was only allowed to pull images from its existing media database or to purchase them new from a single company vendor. It's not really George's fault but still your problem.


Because ignorance has never been a defense. Even if your use of the copyrighted image was unintentional, you've broken the law.

By the way, even if there never was a ©, you're still in trouble. Artists do not need to formally copyright their work. Once it is produced, it is protected.

In addition, large companies like Getty Images that procure the rights to those artists' works not only have copyright protection and sophisticated systems to identify a copyright violation, they have lawyers. Lots of lawyers. This is where you should start to sweat. Because you're being sued. And under current US copyright law, you could be on the hook for a dollar value ranging from $200 to $150,000 for even a single image used illegally. Not to mention the attorney fees that will quickly add up and be entirely your responsibility to pay.

I know. You thought you could just pull the image, offer up a sincere apology, and be done with the whole it-really-wasn't-my-fault matter. No harm, no foul.

But lawyers get paid a whole lot to prove harm and foul. And if you've infringed upon copyright, it's really a slam-dunk for the image owner's lawyer.

So ask yourself: Would you rather pay 10 bucks for an image you know will be safe to use or risk a lawsuit that could cost you six figures?

I'd go with the first option.

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image of Andy Kelley

Andy Kelley is founder and president of Effective Student Marketing, a national digital marketing firm specializing in higher education.

LinkedIn: Andy Kelley