Most people would agree that it’s wrong to walk into a store, slip something into your bag, and then walk out without paying for it. Yes, some people do it, but it’s still breaking the law and it’s still wrong. The same goes for violating copyright laws and other laws that apply to creative works or the use of someone’s likeness.
Yet small businesses do it all the time in their marketing. Sometimes they realize it and sometimes they don’t, but it’s still illegal. And even in some cases where people might argue it’s a grey area on being legal or not, it’s not ethical and certainly not best practice.
We see it happen most frequently on social media. For example, a company will search online and find a photo they really like and add it to their Facebook post. Maybe it’s a photo of their city or a graphic they thought was funny and wanted to share. But if you’re posting it on your page and don’t have permission to use it, that’s copyright infringement. (Now’s a good time to mention that we’re not lawyers and this isn’t legal advice, but rather some helpful suggestions for how small businesses can avoid any potential issues with copyright infringement.)
Another thing we see happen is small businesses grabbing a photo of a celebrity and adding their company logo to the photo. It seems like a fun way to boost likes and shares on social media, right? But it’s using someone’s name and likeness without their permission, and you can be sued for it.
A while back, a Girl Scout went viral when she sold boxes of Somoa cookies with a photo of Jason Momoa as Aquaman on them. The story got a lot of attention, and Jason Momoa jokingly said he was waiting for his cut off the cookies (shortbread, preferably). While fun, it’s still technically a violation of a registered trademark on the cookies and illegal use of someone’s name and likeness without permission.
So what’s the best way to approach using photos in your marketing? They should be photos you’ve taken, stock photos you’ve purchased with appropriate licensing, or photos that you have written permission to use. There are plenty of stock photo websites (one of our favorites is Deposit Photos) where you can purchase image credits in bundles and then use those credits for specific photos as needed.
You my be thinking, “If everyone else is doing it, why can’t I?” Trust us, it’s not worth the risk. A copyright infringement lawsuit can sink your business quickly. And beyond the legal risk, stealing someone else’s creative work isn’t right. You wouldn’t want someone to steal from your business, so don’t steal from someone else’s. Instead, use authentic and original photos or ones you have licensed through a stock photo source.