Photography & Video

Online Retailer’s Guide to Photo Copyrights

Using product or lifestyle images on an ecommerce site without permission from the photograph’s creator or copyright holder is a crime that — in the United States — carries up to a $150,000 penalty. So the next time you’re tempted to copy an image from Google, Bing, or (worse yet) a competitor’s website, don’t.

The aforementioned $150,000 maximum penalty is extreme, perhaps very extreme. A relatively small online business guilty of pilfering photographs is far more likely to simply be asked to take down the image. But copyrights are still very serious. It is important for ecommerce merchants — large and small — to understand which product and lifestyle images may be legally used on a commercial website.

While there are certainly some images that you may use on your site, like this photo downloaded from Copyrights protect many other images.

While there are certainly some images that you may use on your site, like this photo downloaded from Copyrights protect many other images.

Misusing Photography Is Theft

Imagine a small online retail startup. A sole proprietor has invested a few thousand dollars in inventory, taken the time to build a website, and is getting ready to sell online. Unfortunately, some of the product images a manufacturer supplied are low resolution and a little blurry.

Our imagined entrepreneur reads a couple of articles online about how to take good product photos, builds a light box, and buys a reasonably good camera for $300. After several hours of work, this business owner has produced a dozen or so terrific-looking product shots. Finally, this savvy entrepreneur placed a tiny watermark on the images and included a copyright message in the site’s footer.

A few weeks later, while doing some competitive research, this entrepreneur discovers that a competitor has copied the images and is using them, which is likely very damaging to the entrepreneur’s business.

In this hypothetical scenario, the owner of the photographs could sue for damages, and might actually get a few thousand dollars.

Images You May Legally Use on Your Ecommerce Site

There are lots of photographs and images that you may legally use on your website. Here are some examples.

  • Any photograph you take. If you or an employee take a photograph for your use, you are the copyright holder.
  • Photographs you commission. You may hire a photographer to take product or lifestyle pictures for you; just ensure that you are acquiring all rights to the images. Some retailers have paid photographers to take product images only to learn the images could not be used in advertisements because not all rights had been purchased.
  • Photographs from suppliers. Many product manufacturers and distributors will supply you with product or lifestyle images. Frequently this comes in the form of granting you access to a dealer or merchant portal. You may use these images in accordance with the supplier’s terms.
  • Royalty-free stock photography. You can purchase — or in some cases get for free — royalty-free photography from any number of stock photography dealers (see the list below). This photography can be used on your site and in advertising, as examples. Royalty-free means that once purchased, you may use the image repeatedly in different formats.
  • Rights-managed stock photography. Also available for purchase on stock photography sites, rights-managed stock photography is licensed with particular limitations — such as where an image may be displayed, how often it may be displayed, at what size it may be displayed, and for how long it may be displayed.
  • Public domain photography. When a copyright expires or the copyright owner releases a work, that work — a photograph in this context — is said to be in the public domain and may be used.
  • Creative Commons photography. Built to help “keep the Internet creative, free, and open.” Photographs released under a Creative Commons license, which is a sort of alternative to a full copyright, may be used in some cases. Just be certain to understand exactly which Creative Commons license is in use.

Copyright Law Is Complex

On the surface, copyright law might seem simple. A copyright essentially gives the creator of a work, like a photograph, exclusive rights to that work. No one else may use that work without permission. But in practice it can be very complex and nuanced.

The best advice for small and mid-sized business owners may be to avoid any questionable image. If you’re not completely certain that you have a right to use an image, you probably don’t want to use it.

Separately, if you find that someone is using your copyright protected images or if you are informed that you may have infringed on a copyright, you should seek legal advice from an attorney with experience litigating copyrights.

Where to Get Stock Photography

Online retailers may need some stock photography to fill out page design, use in advertising, or use with content marketing. There are many good sites from which you can purchase royalty-free or rights-managed stock images. In no particular order, here are sites to consider.

At the time of writing, there were also sites that offer free, commercial stock images that you may use. Some of these sites require attribution, so be certain to read their terms.

Armando Roggio
Armando Roggio
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