Know Your Digital Copyright from Wrong

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In February 2018, Google made a distinctive change to their image search engine. Where previously you were able to open an image file directly from a search result, that option was removed. Naturally, this frustrated a lot of users as there was now an additional step to saving images found through the engine.

Google wasn’t out to troll search users, however. The reasoning behind the change was singular: to add a layer of protection to the copyright holders of the images in Google’s database. Many people had simply been saving image files from the search engine and were using them quite liberally without concern for the copyrights they held.

For those holding the image rights, the illegal use of their intellectual property is a commonplace issue. According to a study done by Copytrack, there are about 3 billion images uploaded to the internet daily, of which about 85% are copyright infringements. Most of these infringements are written off as inconsequential. Although an unfortunate reality, these infringements are often too trivial to prosecute because of the tedious and costly processes that it involves.  However, as soon as copyrighted images are used for anything that can collect revenue (directly or indirectly), the terrain becomes a lot rockier. Copyright holders can sue for damages or losses derived from illegal use of their intellectual property.

The danger of legal action against unlicensed use of copyrighted images should be taken seriously as damages can escalate rapidly. Say for instance you own a linen shop and use a copyrighted image to print on a duvet cover without permission or licensing. Each item sold is a further infringement on the rights of the original owner and increases your liability.

Even if you aren’t using the image for something you can sell or profit directly from, damages and losses could also be derived from web-traffic to a news article or for the advertising revenue from the webpage that holds the copyrighted image. The problem with copyright lawsuits is that putting a price on creativity is an extremely difficult task. However, considering that stock image giant Getty asks $499 for a single large image, it becomes clear that intellectual property can demand very high prices.

It may seem a bit exorbitant to charge such high prices for image rights, but there are a wide range of considerations that go into the creation of images. This can include equipment, editing, travel and access costs, and model agency fees. The rarity and uniqueness of an image can also increase its exclusivity and value.

For businesses and companies that do not have the budget to pay for images, a lawsuit over copyright infringement can be crippling. The reality, unfortunately, is that high-quality, unique images are expensive. However, this doesn’t mean that you need to break the bank to buy a camera and hire a photographer. There are many images on the internet that can be used freely without the stress of copyright infringement. Many of these licenses are part of the Creative Commons (CC). Images under CC licenses are less restrictive than those gleaned from a stock image provider or images that rely on royalties.

Of all the Creative Commons licenses, the CC0 license is given to images where the creator has relinquished their rights to the image and has submitted it to the public domain. Images in the public domain are free to use for all kinds of purposes and can be altered as seen fit. The same copyright principles apply to music and video. To combat infringements of this kind, YouTube has implemented Content ID on its platform. YouTube’s Content ID database houses a myriad of visuals and audio recordings against which all newly posted videos are tested for copyright infringements. When a similarity is found, YouTube alerts the copyright holder to the infringement. And images, music, and video are but a few instances where copyright should be respected. The range of works covered under copyright law in South Africa includes literary works, musical works, artistic works, cinematograph films, sound recordings, broadcasts, programme-carrying signals, published editions, and computer programs.

Therefore, if you are in an industry that relies on the use and distribution of intellectual property, it may be a good idea to seek professional advice from an expert in Copyright and Intellectual Property Law. With legal expertise, you can chart the safest way forward as you navigate around the landmines of the digital world.

Reference list:

  • Copytrack Global Infringement Report, 2019.
  • https://www.gettyimages.com/plans-and-pricing
  • https://creativecommons.org/about/cclicenses/
  • Copyright Act No. 98 of 1978

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied upon as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE).