Small business solutions

Q&A: What small businesses should know about copyright

By Kjelti Kellough

Vice President, Corporate Counsel, iStock
Previously published in Dynamic Business

Copyright law can seem daunting at first, but the reality is that it’s there to protect you or your small business. We’re thrilled to have our own Kjelti Kellough clear up some of the questions you may have when it comes to navigating the world of copyrighted imagery.

Q: What are the most common mistakes being made by business owners when it comes to copyright?

There are a number of misconceptions surrounding image copyright, with the most common being the tendency to believe that if a photo is published online, it is free to use. In a right-click-and-save-as world, such misconceptions encourage unaware business owners to make the mistake of copying an image in one place online and pasting it somewhere else. The truth is, no matter where images are posted, they may be subject to copyright and other legal rights and, without permission from the image owner or creator, small business owners could find themselves facing serious legal consequences.

Business owners also need to be diligent in ensuring that third-party website designers have secured permission to use the visuals featured in their work. Similarly, they must also be wary when using website templates that incorporate imagery and seek assurances from the template provider that they have the requisite license required to resell this content.

It is the responsibility of the business owner to seek such assurances and keep copies of licenses and permissions from the image owner on file. If an image license is for a specific period of time, the business owner must stay one step ahead and ensure they renew the license or replace it when it expires.

Q: Why are so many businesses being burned and has the number increased due to social media?

"Ultimately businesses need to be cautious about using imagery for commercial purposes if they don’t know where it originated from..."

The rise of smartphones and tablets, along with growing social networks and advancements such as 4G, have given consumers and businesses alike the freedom and flexibility to share and source images at the touch of a button. In minutes, business owners can capture and upload visual content direct to their social networks or reproduce content on their website – content which they may not own nor have consent to publish.

The ease with which visual content can be copied and reused unfortunately means that there are many illegal uses of imagery by individuals and small and large businesses alike. Ultimately businesses need to be cautious about using imagery for commercial purposes if they don’t know where it originated from, who owns the copyright and whether permission has been granted for the particular use in question.

Fortunately, there are online tools like Picscout to help small businesses check copyright and licensing information, such as duration of use, geographic location or industry, so they can obtain permission (often in the form of a license) before using the content on their website, in their communications, products, and so on.

Q: With huge enterprises like Apple found to have breached copyright laws, why are the owners of intellectual property bothering to go after unwary SMBs?

For photographers, filmmakers, illustrators and musicians, the ability to earn an income from the licensing and distribution of their original digital content is key to living a creative life, and to sustaining a thriving creative community. A thriving creative community, in turn, enriches and benefits society on many levels.

Lacking a way to monetize their content, creatives would be hard pressed to invest their time and effort in the creation of powerful new content. This would ultimately dull, not only the content available to business owners, but the global populations’ exposure to and experience of creativity as well.

Fortunately, just as innovations and technology make it easy for content users to right-click-and-save-as, it also makes it easy to ‘do the right thing’ – for their business, for their clients and for the owner of the content.

Q: How can business owners avoid getting into trouble?

Unless business owners are creating their own imagery for their marketing collateral, packaging, social media platforms and website, they should always check image ownership and obtain permission, often in the form of a license, before using imagery on their sites, products or communications.

Business owners should also be sure to ask third-party designers for copies of licenses for any images they purchase on their behalf. This applies to images used in marketing materials as well as products and packaging.

Tips to avoid common copyright mistakes include:

  1. Make sure you or your designer only use imagery with the permission of the image owner/creator.
  2. Keep copies of licenses and permissions from image owners/creators on file.
  3. If an image license is for a specific period of time, ensure you renew the license or replace it when the license expires.
  4. When using a web template that includes imagery, ensure that you have assurance from the template seller that they have a license to resell this content.
  5. Source and licence royalty free stock imagery and video from distributors like iStock to ensure you’re using content with all the requisite permissions in place.
  6. Exercise caution when using imagery for commercial purposes. If you don’t know where an image originated from or who owns the copyright to it, it is best to seek out an alternative.
  7. Take a few minutes to view the helpful video and information on, which explains image copyright rules and how to license stock photos, or check out the Copyright guide from Getty Images.

About Kjelti Kellough

Kjelti Kellough is Vice President, Corporate Counsel for iStock and its parent company Getty Images. The web's original source for royalty-free stock images, video, illustration and design elements, iStock offers easy, affordable inspiration from a collection of over ten million files.

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