Small firms on the web: when online risks aren't a pretty picture

By: Georgina Harris

Date: 16 December 2009

Many small firms have a website nowadays, and those that don't are probably thinking about one. But while we all know the benefits – increased sales, better market presence, satisfyingly glam company image – are you aware exactly how fast your website can get you into trouble?

A welter of court cases recently illustrates the pitfalls. Over 300 unwary firms and organisations have faced the perils of copyright infringement - using other people's work improperly, such as pictures or words, online. It's illegal, and as 'improperly' usually means not paying for the material, not crediting, or both, businesses are at risk of a nasty shock and a large bill.

One case came to the attention of The Guardian: "A church in Lichfield, Staffordshire, faced a [… ] fundraising problem: to pay a £6,000 bill demanded for photographs used on its website. […] In creating the church's website, a volunteer had included a couple of images sourced from Getty, a large picture agency, without paying for them. A couple of months later, Getty sent the church a demand for £6,000. Great news for the new church steeple the villagers wanted.

While the church finally reached a conclusion with Getty, firms nationwide are still at risk of the same tactics from picture agencies and copyright owners everywhere. There may seem no immediate reason why a small-business owner or charity volunteer should know the ins and outs of copyright law; however, under the law a mistake is no excuse. These agencies are acting entirely legally.

Anyway, most people don't want to break the law, even if they don't understand it. So how do you avoid getting hit? First, find out when you need permission. If material has been created by someone else, the maker owns copyright and you need a written license to use it. This applies to most artworks, photos, graphs, tools, words - even blog entries and tweets. The material doesn't need the © copyright sign on it – it belongs to the owner regardless. Neither does it matter where you got it from. Copyright applies to the Internet just as much as it does elsewhere. Ripping a picture off Google and popping it on your home page is almost certainly illegal. Don't assume you can get away with it. Your website is visible, after all. Even if the copyright holder doesn't want to sue you - they probably won't – you will usually have to pay them to go away.

The rise of the web, too, has seen the establishment of firms whose business is monitoring publications and websites to spot copying. Find the copyright owner of what you want to use. Try the publishers – i.e. the administrators of the website, or the address on the masthead of the mag. Write to them telling them how long you want to use their material for, why you want it and who it was by, if you can tell. Ask to use the extract for free - the owner can always come back asking for money. If you can't find out who owns the material, abandon the idea of using it. Using anything without permission, even if permission is impossible to get, is a no-no. If in doubt, leave it out.

Visit the Law Donut for more great advice on copyright.

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