Lesson Learned: Bloggers, Pay Attention When Selecting Images and Make Sure You Have Permission to Use Them

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It was last November.  I was writing a post about my mother’s final days on this earth. Mom had battled Alzheimer’s for more than eight years, and her sad, long journey was almost at an end.

The image I chose for my post was a beautiful Tree of Life creation which fit perfectly with my subject matter.  I remember hesitating just for a moment.  Was it an image I had purchased from a service?  Had I found it in Creative Commons?  Was it okay to use?

paintbrushes

Image: Kara Harms via Flickr

My mind was hazy, and I was certainly distracted.  However, I thought I had permission to use the image.  After all, why else would I have it in my image library?  In haste, I used the image and clicked the publish button.

After that, I didn’t give it another thought.  I had so much on my mind.

My mother died a few days later, and immediately I was deluged with messages from friends, family, hospice, the cremation society, online connections, and more.

One of these missed emails was from Marian Osher, the talented artist who was the creator of Tree of Life.  Marian asked me to remove the image since she held the copyright, and I had posted her image without permission, attribution and/or compensation.

However, I missed seeing this initial email.  When she didn’t receive a response from me,  Marian referred the matter to the legal team of my website host and within days, they followed up with a cease and desist email.  This email got my full attention.

How could I be so stupid?

Immediately, I removed the image.  I knew using a copyrighted image without permission was illegal and it could mean a boatload of trouble — as well as a hefty financial price tag.  It had happened to bloggers I know and even to my own former spouse who hired someone to build a website and didn’t know the designer used copyrighted images without obtaining approvals.

Not only that, I was mortified.

When I first started blogging, I had used images willy-nilly, mainly plucking what I liked from Google Images.

Then, I attended a blogger conference and wandered into a session I had not even planned on attending.  The woman at the podium was talking about copyright laws and how many bloggers unknowingly use images — images not in the public domain — without permission.  She warned this practice was not only unacceptable, it was illegal.

Illegal?  It’s a hard word.  I wanted no part of illegal.

On a mission, I spent an entire day purging my blog of images I had unwittingly used for free and without permission.  Moving forward, I began purchasing images through stock photo sites or opting for public domain images.

I was vigilant about the images on my blog.  Until that day back in November.

After I removed the Tree of Life image, I contacted its creator, Marian Osher, a talented painter and printmaker, who is based in Maryland.

In an email, I apologized and explained what was happening in my life at the time.  While this was not an excuse, I hoped it might provide some perspective.  I told Marian I knew better and would do better.  I asked her not to take further legal action, instead requesting we work out the situation between ourselves.

To my relief, she graciously agreed.

Then something unexpected began happening.  Marian and I continued to exchange emails, and we spoke by phone.  We had made a connection.

I shared with Marian that my own creative work had been re-posted on websites without my permission.  I had even come across my writing changed just a little and then attributed to someone else.  This left me feeling angry and hurt.  Indeed, we could relate to each others experiences.

During our back-and-forth conversations, Marian and I hatched a plan.  Why not work together and use this situation to pass the word on to others?  That way, some good could result from my error.  We could each express our feelings and perspective.

Since this is my blog, I’ll go first.  My advice to bloggers and website owners everywhere: Think before you click.

If you find an image you like, contact the creator to seek permission and negotiate permission, any fee, and how the image creator should be listed on your blog or website.  As mentioned above, I now use stock-photo services, such as istockphoto.com, where you can buy credits and find lots of great images.

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