Along with speed limits and, in the good old days, copying vinyl LPs onto cassette* (showing my age) and burning CDs, downloading images off Google for commercial and personal online projects has to be one of the most universally ignored laws there is. Probably everyone’s done it at some point without checking that they’re royalty free images.
There’s a copyright issue here, and quite rightly. Every image listed on Google Images as the result of a search is the end product of someone’s work and unless is marked as ‘royalty free’ or ‘labelled for reuse’ it means that permission is required before it is used, especially, for commercial purposes.
This has been highlighted in a case in a school in Germany where a pupil used an image on the school website that originated on a travel website. Once discovered, the photographer responsible for taking the photograph of Corboda, in Spain, began legal proceedings against the state for copyright infringements stating that permission had only been granted to the travel website for its use. Naturally, no one should blame the poor kid who pinched it, but this is really a case of, ironically, education.
Seeing as it’s so rife, it begs the question how many people are aware of what constitutes copyright infringement when using images found online. Maybe people don’t know, or maybe it’s because, like driving over the speed limit, there’s only a slim chance you’ll get caught. In the case of the German schoolkid, pupils are taught to look for images online for IT lessons and to include in project work in other lessons. This work is never usually seen outside the confines of a classroom but the image of Corboda was republished into the public domain on the school website, i.e. the school pupil was only doing what they’d been taught to do but its publication for the world to see crossed the line into, what could be perceived as, commercial use.
But there is a wider issue here. Even though all these Google images are in the public domain doesn’t mean they are free to use. Bananas in Tesco are in the public domain, but you still have to pay for them. If someone’s services or products are used, they absolutely must be paid for their efforts, and/or credited, and/or asked for permission.
One of the most difficult things for us to ‘sell’ as a web agency is the importance of great imagery. Just because someone has the ability to take photos on their smartphones doesn’t mean they know how to take photos. There’s a difference. In addition, bad photos on websites look terrible and can destroy an excellent design. Professionally taken photos look brilliant. Add to this, the perception of ‘value’. Because everyone has the power to take photos there is a perceived devaluing of the need to hire a professional photographer for a project or to pay a few quid for a license on Adobe Stock or Shutterstock. The best web projects are the ones that have been invested in. Investment means paying someone to do a proper job. This low value attribution to photography means that people don’t think twice about using images without permission. And, because it’s easy.
Only a cold-hearted person wouldn’t feel sympathy for the wee scholar whose actions created a fuss that went all the way to the European Court of Justice, but there must be sympathy for the photographer too. None of us like having our stuff nicked and no one is happy to work for free. But, think back to your school days and the fifteen years you spent there and all those lessons you sat through year on year. Everything fades from the memory and we only remember the really good stuff and the bits where we were in trouble. This is one of those moments for that poor kid.
*The resurgence of vinyl? Don’t get it. The world’s moved on.