Copyright Infringement – How Bad Can It Be?

Laura McDaniel’s blog titled, “Google Images – Do you use them in your posts?” caught my attention and sent chills up my spine.  By now I hope most of us realize that lifting images off the web is Copyright Infringement. But lifting photos is not the only way to wind up in trouble.

Let me tell you a story that will change the way you think about it.

We purchased a website template for a small website we ran as a lead generator.   The template included a really nice image that suited our needs so we kept it and went live with the site in February of that year.  Come July I get a Cease and Desist letter from a law firm and along with an invoice for $1000 as liquidated damages in lieu of a suit being filed.

That kind of letter will back you up.  I figured I could handle this on my own since I purchased the photo as part of a template so I faxed off a letter to the law firm telling them how this occurred and that we purchased the photo as part of a template.  I even included a copy of the receipt and contact information for the company who sold it to us.  I figured that was taken care of and went back to work.

A few days later I get a return fax telling me that the company who sold us the photo had not licensed it.  They wanted us to comply with the Cease and Desist and pay them the $1000.  At this point I gave in and called my lawyer.  This was the start of a serious lesson in US Copyright Law.

Lessons learned:

– US Copyright Law does not recognize innocent infringement. I had it on our site and regardless of how it got there (with a few exceptions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act – none of which applied to me) I was considered a Copyright Infringer.

– Since the photo was not registered with the Federal Copyright Office, I was liable for the actual loss and any profit attributed to the use of the photo. They sell the photo for $49 and we had not generated any leads from the website so there was no profit to go after.

– Had the photo been registered, we would have been in far worse shape.  The minimum award is $750 plus reasonable attorney fees.  Awards can go substantially higher based on the situation.


Our lawyer sent the law firm our check for $49, a letter from our CPA that we actually had a YTD loss on the books, and that we would comply with the Cease and Desist portion of their request.  They never cashed our check and we never heard from them again. I paid my lawyer for three hours of his time.  Total cost about $1000 plus all the time and effort.

We went back through years of blogs and every website we owned.  If we could not find the receipt for the photo it was removed.  Now we only use photos that we have taken or purchased from reliable sources. We use iStockPhoto for most everything these days. 

I never want to go through that again.

About Tom Branch

Tom Branch has written 597 posts in this blog.

Have you ever just met someone, but felt you like you'd known him for years? That's what most people experience with Tom. He has a knack for making folks feel right at home. After 21 years in the Air Force, loyalty and honesty are the foundation of everything Tom does. In addition to being a Texas Real Estate Broker, Tom is a Certified Distressed Property Expert (CDPE) and a Short Sales & Foreclosure Resource (SFR).