Using “Borrowed” Photos? It Could Cause You To Lose Your Domain And A Lot of Money

Jan 24 2011

It’s a too common practice that we all have done or one time or another.  Looking for that quick photo to compliment an article or post to give it a little color.  A word to the wise, be careful. Companies more that ever are starting to look for compensation for unauthorized use and when I say compensation, I mean hundreds of thousands of dollars and your domain.

Las Vegas newspaper copyright enforcement company Righthaven LLC has file 209 lawsuits since last March with most being sued for $105,000 and forfeiture of their domain.  Righthaven has not been choosy in their lawsuits.  They’ve sued everyone from The Drudge Report to small blogs like, a small hip hop website owned by Phoenix rapper Yung Face. According to Righthaven,  “willfully infringed upon Righthaven’s copyright, by copying the work (photo) on an unauthorized basis.”

It’s a trend I see continuing.  There are too many website business models built on stealing other peoples content including photos.  Righthaven is sending a message but they may not have a case.  I am not a lawyer but I had always thought that you couldn’t copyright newspaper pictures.  A commenter from the LasVegasSun agrees with me and seems a little upset about this.

It’s unlikely that Righthaven will have success with these lawsuits if they make it to court.

Righthaven seems to be forgetting that photos used in news and editorial are not covered by copy-write. If the lawsuits go to court and win it would mean all the content that the media takes at will and all the images of other people’s property, likenesses, and copy-write that they display and do not pay for claiming right of the free press would be null and void.

In this lame effort to protect intellectual rights it is killing the golden goose that allows media to use whatever it wants in stories and editorial and not pay for it ever.I think the hope of Righthaven like that of many companies who make their money off of patent infringement is to scare the accused into paying up to avoid costly courts. Some people and companies will cave in and pay a settlement to avoid going to court.

This is legal blackmail and strong-arming like a cheap street thug hitting up small businesses for protection money to the graft of Las Vegas and County officials who require “off the book fees” to ensure permits go through.It’s just another way for the big guys to bully and steal from the small guys, the high profile attempts are just to get into the news so they get more bang out of the threats against little guys they hope will pay up.It’s a shame and despicable.

And there’s this comment from Reddit that shows the other side.

There exists on the internet today a strange, completely incorrect view on photography — that any photo the blesses the web is up for grabs for use for any website, blog, or publication in the world. Post a cool photo on Flickr? Expect to see it in hundreds of places on the internet within months — and not just little mom and pop WordPress sites and Blogger blogs, but also in large online publications who pull in tends of thousands of dollars a month in ad revenue. Expect to see your photo on websites that exists to do nothing but scrape interesting photos from all over the internet and put them in one place next to Adsense ads. Expect to open up the Daily Mail and see your photograph.

Why does this happen? Is there a large lack of available photos by professional photographers? Is it too hard to email amateurs for permission to use a photo?

No, and no. This happens for two reasons: one, using a photo found on the internet without permission from the photographer costs zero dollars almost all of the time. Most amateur photographers never even find their photos on infringing websites, and when they do, very few ask for compensation. Two, most photographers do not register the copyrights to their images at the United States Copyright Office. What this means is that even if the photographer’s image is infringed, they are only able to collect actual damages and that they have way to recovering attorney’s fees and court costs should the issue ever go to trial — or, in short, that in 99% of cases, no matter how egregious, it is difficult to impossible to get compensation for an infringing use. These companies know this. The risk that they’ve faced up to this point in just stealing all their content is almost zero.

What cases like these do is increase the risk to companies who want to steal images. Now there are a growing number of photographers out there who are tired of their images being stolen wholesale by companies who should and do know better, and they’re willing to go through the bother of registering their copyrights and hiring attorneys to demand compensation from companies misappropriating their work. Now a company, when doing risk analysis, has to ask themselves if it makes sense to risk bankrupting the entire company by having a business model built on running infringing images, or whether it makes more sense for them to do what most reputable companies do — which is to get a subscription with a stock agency or to buy low-cost images from a microstock from somewhere like iStockPhoto or at the very least to always ask permission for a photo before running it. More clients purchasing photography means more professional photographers who can feed their families. I can’t feed my family with the proud beaming feeling that I’m apparently supposed to get when I suddenly see my photo pop up on high-end commercial blogs and on the homepage of internet companies.

Now I don’t know much about what Righthaven has done with photography, but I know they’ve previously been suing over infringement of news articles, it sounds like they’ve been a bit of an ass about how they’ve handled these things, both in the way they’ve filed in court and in the fact that they’ve targeted some really low-end forums and blogs on the internet that don’t seem like big priorities to me. But I do agree in principle with what they’re trying to do — to raise the cost of having a business model built on infringing photography.

Regardless of the legal results of this case it should be a lesson here.  Don’t take what’s not yours without asking.  Again, it’s something we all do at some point and this site surely has some “borrowed” photos ,but when it comes to my sites that are photo based, I own every single one or have received permission from the owners.  The effort it took to gather all these plant photos makes me realize their value.  I’ve spent a lot of time and money traveling to find and create my photos and get very upset when another person finds it OK to use it to sell their wares.  I have yet to pursue any of my photo borrowers but for $150,000 and their domain,  I may have to contact my lawyer and start getting some letters out.  It may be the most profitable plant photos I’ve ever taken.

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Outsmarting the Dumb, Outworking the Smart

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  1. Joey Starkey

    When I first started building sites I did a Memphis Tourism site, I did all the writing and took all of the pictures. I still see some of my photos on other Memphis sites. I never bother to copywrite the photos were not how I made my money.

    @Mike Thanks you were grosing us out.

  2. nancy

    I wonder if they’ve contacted people on social media sites like Facebook. I talked to a few friends that are not in the biz, and they think that if a picture is posted somewhere in the public, it’s fair game. Photos are posted there very frequently without permission, and then shared between accounts.
    Like Shane said – get an account at or istock – or take your own photos. Why do you think you see my dog’s picture on almost every site I own? lol
    @teen domainer – There may be something similar to that out there that was developed by the adult industry. That industry has everything cataloged about their images, and copyright is well documented (they call it 2257) very enforceable by law.

  3. whoisbid

    I recently had someone show me a CD he bought on the street. It contained thousands of a certain photographer’s images. Kind of sad it was, because that CD looked like the photographer’s life work. Apparently it was sold for a couple of bucks to him. Although technology is good, there are also the bad sides where your life’s work can be stolen and sold for a penny.

  4. Logan

    @whoisbid – no, technology is innocent; it’s the users of the technology that are at fault here. The bad side of some humans is that they do not value the property rights of others.

    Thus, any property you put out on the web needs to remind users of your property rights via copyright, trademark, registered trademark, and service mark notices. It’s not necessary to have them for when you go to court, but it can act as a deterrent to some users stealing your property.

    Also, you have to notify an offender that you want them to take down your photo or article or you want them to compensate you as soon as you find the offending photo or article to show that you are actively defending your copyright, trademark, etc. I’ve done this for one or two of my website’s articles that people just copied and pasted and put on their own websites because they liked what I wrote about economics/finance/money. Fortunately, they complied with my demands before I had to get all oily and lawyered up. 😉

    You can find official-looking take-down notices online that you can, ahem, review in some detail before you craft your own official-looking take-down notice and email them to the offenders. The notices use legalese and such that scares most innocent offenders into compliance.

  5. whoisbid

    @logan I don’t live in the USA, so nothing applies over here. You can steal what you want over here and get away with it. When we want to invoke the wrath of the law we have to weigh up the cost factor. Normally, it is not profitable to go after someone for petty theft. It has to be a bit more serious. Since copying people’s stuff happens all the time, it is not considered a crime in some places.

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