My church received a letter claiming that we used an image on our website without a license and that we had to pay a fine of $550. After some research, the claim appeared legitimate.
The image in question was one we had found with a Google search, and we assumed it was free to use. As it turns out, the image belongs to a stock image company. A third party contacted us on behalf of the company and threatened further action if we didn’t pay the fine and remove the picture. We did, and the fine was reduced to $300.
I did further research and discovered that stock image companies are really cracking down on people using their pictures on websites. One company has sent out thousands of letters like the one we received. Being small (or a church) doesn’t elicit any sympathy.
I also learned that Google has a disclaimer that it doesn't need to reveal license information, and ignorance on the user's part is no excuse for unlicensed use of a picture.
The bottom line is that almost any use of a photo found on the Internet is a copyright violation. The rule of thumb is that if you didn't take the picture, you can't use it, unless you have the photographer’s permission, which usually comes at a cost. In fact, there are even cases where photographers say they took the picture, but they stole it. You are still liable for the fine, unless you have a release from the photographer stating that he or she will take responsibility for any violations.
I also learned that deleting all the pictures from your website may not eliminate the risk, because there are services out there that archive websites. So someone may have an archive of what a website looked like yesterday or a year ago, and people can search it. If they find a picture they own, they can take action.
Frank Sommerville, an attorney that regularly assists churches and an Editorial Advisor for Church Law & Tax , adds the same copyright rules apply when a minister or staff member uses pictures in his or her sermons or presentations. Also, Sommerville notes, unless your church has a release from the people in any pictures your church takes and uses, your church can be liable to those individuals for misappropriation of their likeness. Some exceptions exist for all these rules, so check with your church’s attorney.
For more information on how copyright applies to churches, see the Essential Guide to Copyright Law for Churches.
Ed Marino is a church business administrator from Pepperell, Massachusetts.