In the early days of the internet, many web sites treated copyright law as a trivial matter, using whatever images they wanted regardless of whether they had rights to them. As a result, reckless webmasters wound up facing stiff fines and harsh litigation settlements when owners of images sued for damages. You don't want to fall victim to such lawsuits. Here's a guide on the importance of attribution. Do it right or you could be sued.

Fear Factor

The Importance of Photo AttributionImage via Flickr user Lisa Norwood

What's the doomsday scenario for every website? It's receiving a shutdown notice from your web host. Assuming that you don't own your own server, you can wake up one day to discover that a third party has silenced your voice on the internet. It happens more often than you might think.

Web hosts have legal responsibilities for the domains on their servers. This is true regardless of whether they manage any of the content. When one of the tenants subletting space on their server violates terms of service or does something illegal, the host is liable. To protect its own interests, your host must take action, either asking you to address the issue or simply shutting down your site.

You Know What You Did

What causes your web host to shut down your site? You might believe it's posting something untoward such as pornography. In truth, you could have done something much simpler. Most web sites today include photographs along with their text. It's a better way to engage readers, drawing their attention in a subtle fashion. The catch is that many of the images posted online fail to include attribution. That itself is a violation of copyright law.

How does the issue occur? Many webmasters handle graphics acquisition in the same way. They have bookmarked Google Images. When they need an image to complement their story, they simply perform a web search, then download their favorite option from the results. It's a tidy way to compile images quickly — but there's a problem.

Google offers no promises that the images it collates are in the public domain. To the contrary, its image search includes a warning: "Images may be subject to copyright claim." That's the company's way of warning users that they are personally responsible for determining whether an image is free to use without permission. If it's not, the webmaster must gain usage rights, either by purchasing them or by asking the owner for authorization. Generally, that will include giving proper attribution.

How to Handle Attribution

Flickr's Creative Commons is one of the largest collections of free image libraries on the internet. It also provides expert guidance on proper image attribution, supplying guidelines that are reasonable and easy to understand.

Flickr's preferred method includes detailed identification of the image used as well as the purpose of its use. You should include the title of the image for clarity. Then add the author's name along with a link to the image in question. Next, clarify the source you used in acquiring the image. Finally, add a link to the license that grants you the legal right to post the image. For examples of proper attribution, look at the Creative Commons page.

The Punishment for Infringement

What happens when you post an image without attribution? The owner of the image whose copyright you violated is eligible for damages. A court of law will look unfavorably on the defendant in these situations. As this popular blogger chronicles, she had almost no legal basis for her defense. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

You also can't claim that the page on which you displayed the image garnered little traffic. The violation is all that matters, not how much you benefited from your illegal use.

Fees for such copyright infringements can cripple the finances of even websites that have respectable revenue streams — and they'll bankrupt a lesser site. In this example, a web site incurred a penalty of $3,000 for a single infraction. Regrettably, the primary purpose of that page is to give advice about how to run sites appropriately. Even experts in web management have struggled with the complexity of civil law.

Given the above example, it's obvious how critical image attribution is to your web site. If you don't use it, the potential consequences are dire. Your web host might shut down your service, or someone could file a claim that costs you thousands of dollars. Learn the rules of appropriate image acquisition and attribution or consult an experienced lawyer to help prevent such a disaster from befalling you.

Contact Rogers & Moss for your free, no-risk, consultation.