Illegal Images

Me: “That’s a really interesting image, where did you get it?”

Client: “Google.”

This brief exchange often incites a thorough search, removal, and replacement of images on websites and other electronic media. It’s also the first step to avoid massive fines and a dreaded lawsuit.

When clients come to me, I explain that the work that I will do for them will be comprehensive, but it doesn’t include fees for stock photographs and illustrations. I give an anticipated estimate, but that range is vast because the pool of available legal imagery is equally as large, as is the cost spectrum.

While there is a cost factor for image use, getting legal images doesn’t have to be expensive. iStockPhoto is a rather affordable resource and one that I use often. Perhaps you know a burgeoning photographer or illustrator that will license their work in exchange for an art credit, just be sure to get it in writing. There is Creative Commons, but those rights, rules, and restrictions can be confusing for clients, so I don’t recommend it.

Not sure if you have properly purchased images on your site?

Head over to Google Images and click on the camera icon in the search field. From there, you can upload any image and Google will show you where else your image resides on the Web. If it appears on a stock art website or with a watermark and you know that you haven’t paid a dime for any images, you likely don’t own it. Take it down immediately.

Think you won’t get caught? You would be wrong. Last year, a client got a hefty bill from a licensing agency for an image that they used on their website and then again on social media channels. I was able to help them navigate this kerfuffle, but this single image resulted in a fine and they had to strip all images from their website because they were all “from Google.”

Companies like ImageRights protect creative content from unauthorized use by finding their clients’ images in use across the web and then checking to see if you have properly licensed the image. If you didn’t, expect a bill that is for the cost of the use of the image, its usage duration, and then penalties and fees on top of that. Even if you remove the image in question, still reach out to the agency, and start a dialog. Ignoring the bill just means that they will take the next step and will prosecute. Those legal fees will far outshine the original image cost.

Now, the good news, and there is good news. For those people and businesses with limited marketing budgets, there are options that will allow you to get images included with some of your other purchased services. For example, GoDaddy has a fairly healthy selection of images available when you sign up for their WordPress hosting solutions.

As well, when you are starting a new project with a creative provider, set a realistic cap on your image budget, let them find the images because they will have the best resources and maybe even a healthy library of properly licensed images.


One of my first consulting gigs was for a now-defunct, mid-sized design firm. One of the owners, I will call him Charles, was a very accomplished and recognized designer. He would often claim that his former boss was claiming Charles’s work as his own. As a result, there was a fair amount of talk about copyright and creative ownership. Yet while this was going on, I would watch people take digital photographs of printed images in magazines and stock photo books and then use them within their marketing materials and in presentations. The hypocrisy was astounding.

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