Question: I got a notice of copyright infringement via Fedex from a company called Masterfile for an image that I have posted on my website. They want $2,500 as compensation; is this a scam or should I take this seriously? — Anonymous

Answer: The Internet makes it so easy to copy and paste just about anything you find online and that has led to a major problem for both website owners and photographers: image copyright infringement.

Image copyright infringement is running rampant primarily because so many people have no understanding of what is and isn’t copyrighted.

Masterfile is one of many companies that sells images and aggressively pursues anyone that uses one of their images without paying for it. I can’t give you legal advice for what you should do, but I would definitely recommend that you start researching what others in your position have done (search: Masterfile copyright infringement).

Here are the most common misconceptions when it comes to using images on the Internet:

• If I find it on Google’s image search, it’s public domain. Publicly accessible does not mean publicly usable. Public domain is a specific term and qualifies if it was created: before 1923, between 1923-1963 without a copyright notice, between 1923-1963 with a copyright notice, if the copyright was not renewed, between 1964-1977 without a copyright notice, and at any time by the federal government.

A copyright lasts for 70 years past the author’s death, so you can expect just about everything you see on the Internet was created by someone that hasn’t been dead for 70 years. NEVER use an image from a Google search unless you get specific written consent from the owner of the image.

• If I change the image by 20 percent, I’m safe to use it. There is no legal standard for changing an image by a random percentage to avoid copyright infringement. If you use someone else’s copyrighted work in any way, you are technically violating the copyright and potentially liable. In fact, if you are found to be willfully infringing (removing a watermark for instance), your exposure can become much greater.

• There wasn’t any copyright information posted with the image, so I’m not liable. The law prohibits both accidental and willful copyright infringement and only recognizes the differences for determining damages by the copyright holder. There is no requirement to post copyright information, so always assume everything you see on the Internet is copyrighted.

• I’m not making money from using the image. What you use the image for has nothing to do with copyright infringement. Whether you were using it on a personal blog vs. a company website may determine how far the copyright holder will go to pursue his case, but it has no bearing on the copyright itself.

• I gave the owner credit for the image. Simply providing attribution does not override copyright laws. Always get written permission so you can protect yourself.

If you use a lot of images or want an inexpensive place to buy images, checkout http://www.BigstockPhoto.com.

• Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the Data Doctors Radio Program, noon Saturdays on KTAR 92.3 FM or at www.datadoctors.com/radio.

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