The SNO Report: Copyright Law And Your Site

We have written about copyright law in the past, but it’s an important topic that we want to keep at the top of everyone’s minds.

We don’t want to alarm you, however, displaying copyrighted images without purchasing a license, or obtaining written permission from the copyright holder, can result in your publication receiving a takedown notice from a law office, or potentially being billed over $1,000 for a single image.

We’ve received several support tickets this year from sites asking us to help them permanently remove a copyrighted image from their site after they received a takedown notice or a bill. We hope that you can avoid receiving one of those letters* or bills by following these tips to help you avoid copyright infringement:

Whenever possible, create original images or art

Recreate a stock image that you found online (e.g. write the word STRESSED! on a sticky note with permanent marker and use that as your featured image for a story about stress instead of downloading a similar photo offline). For five minutes of work you are creating your own original image that will guarantee you do not need to worry about whether or not a download is copyrighted.

An added benefit to finding a stock image you like, then recreating an original version with members of your school community, is that you will create a stronger connection with your readers.

Or reach out to a student in AP Studio Art, or a student who likes to draw, to do an original drawing related to what the story is about.

Think about what images you might need regularly

Consider things you are regularly writing about and images that could go with those articles (e.g. the school building, city hall, the school board, a headshot of every member of the admin team, etc.) Brainstorm that list at the beginning of every year, then get photographers to take those photos for your image library for use throughout the year.

You can also ask your staff members to provide any images they took on their vacations, which might benefit nation or world stories later in the year. For example, Kyle Phillips, one of our education and training specialists, took this photo at a Phillies game when he was on vacation in 2019. It would have been a great photo to have during the Phillies 2022 World Series run. (You have Kyle’s permission to download and use that photo in the future, please just use the photo credit “Photo courtesy of Kyle Phillips”.)

We also recommend creating a generic placeholder image to use for stories where you can’t find an image. This can be something as simple as the publication logo on a 900×600 rectangle.

Carefully read the license of every photo and attribute each one properly

Some copyright holders, including companies that own stock image websites, are very protective of their content and hire law firms that have bots, which search the internet for unlawful use of copyrighted images. Make sure that you are not just using the first image you see on Google Images that works for the story. Instead, if you must, look to Creative Commons or Wikimedia Commons for free to use photos.

If you do use Creative Commons or Wikimedia make sure to read the license carefully and abide by every portion of the license, which often includes providing hyperlinks to the original source. (Instructions on how to add the hyperlinks to a caption is included in this support article.)

After searching the libraries of Creative Commons or Wikimedia, best practice is to attribute the photo properly once it’s placed on the website based on the terms in the license. According the Creative Commons website: “One condition of all CC licenses is attribution.”

Note that just putting “Photo from Creative Commons” or some variation of that is not substantial enough. Failure to provide proper attribution to meet the terms of the Creative Commons license can result in the photo no longer being free to use, again opening your site up to takedown notices or fees.

Keep a spreadsheet of info on downloaded images

We recommend keeping a spreadsheet of every image you download for use on your site, the date you downloaded it, the url where it came from and where you can find the license.

There have been instances of a Creative Commons provider changing the terms of their license at a later date.

Trust your gut and don’t fall for the trap

If something looks too good to be true as a Creative Commons image, there’s a good chance it is. You have no control over who uploads an image and clicks all of the boxes saying that they have the right to share that photo via Creative Commons. While they will likely face their own legal troubles for lying about that, it does not take you off the hook for using a copyrighted image. To avoid those traps, stick to original work whenever possible.

Do some spring cleaning and take down any copyrighted images from previous years

Now that you’re armed with this knowledge, take some time to rid your site of any copyrighted images that may have been posted by previous staff members, who may not have known better.

*If you do receive a takedown notice, cease & desist, a bill, or any other documentation from a law firm claiming to represent a copyright holder contact your district’s attorney or the Student Press Law Center immediately, before engaging with the sender.