Yes, it is possible. You download an image from the internet without anyone asking for payment. You use that image on your web site. A few months later, you receive the letter in the mail, or by Federal Express, saying you have violated somebody’s copyright and that you owe anywhere from $1000 to tens of thousands of dollars. You immediately take the image off your web site. You answer the letter with apologies. And you think that is the end of it.
Maybe not. In fact, probably not. The complaining party will likely still come after you for money.
If you ignore the continuing demands, the odds are high that you will be sued in Federal Court.
Let’s back up for a minute. The real issue here is copyright law, which says, among other things, that the creator of a photo, namely the photographer, has the right to control using, copying, displaying, and/or changing that photograph, along with other rights. Those rights spring into being at the moment the photograph is taken. The photographer doesn’t have to do anything, doesn’t have to register anything. So any time you use someone else’s photograph, you are violating their copyright unless you get their permission, specifically. The fact that you didn’t know you were infringing does not save you. It does allow the court to reduce the amount of damages. It doesn’t save you the costs of attorney fees to defend yourself, which can be much more than the damages the court might award. In addition, the courts are allowed to order you to pay the attorney fees incurred by your opponent. All those attorney fees can add up to real money.
Any time you use a photo or other graphic on a web site, you are posting that image or graphic for the world to see.
Some people think that they can put an image on their web site and not concern themselves with copyright laws.
There are two kinds of businesses who control copyrights to photographs. There are those that just want their rights respected. Those owners will send you a letter demanding you cease using the image. You take the image off your web site and apologize. That solves the problem.
Well, that is OLD SCHOOL, and is now the exception!
The second kind of copyright owner is a small number of businesses who include in their business model the concept of catching unsuspecting users of copyrighted photographs, and then charging them excessive fees for those alleged infringing uses. Our experience suggests that they may be setting up intentional traps to get you to use their images, and then catch you. They certainly don’t police the availability of their images on the internet, so it is easy for you to find and use one of their images without realizing they have rights. Once they catch you using one of their images, they spring into action to collect money.
Call it a trap. I’ve heard it called legalized extortion. Some people call it immoral. Whatever word or words you use to describe it, these operators are smart and efficient. They ostensibly operate within the scope of the law. Some think not. Others think just barely. But wherever you are on that issue, they are making life miserable for thousands of unsuspecting web site owners.