The use of photographs on websites continues to be an issue. According to trade press reports, lawsuits were filed against two broadcasters for the unauthorized use of photos on websites, though one suit was quickly dismissed as the named broadcaster in fact had purchased rights to the photos through Getty Images, a clearance house for the rights to use photographic images. But the filings of these lawsuits, along with other suits we wrote about here filed a little over a year ago, highlight the concerns that any company should have about the photos that are found on their websites. I highlighted these issues in my digital media presentation for broadcasters, which I wrote about here just two weeks ago.

Photos that are found on the Internet cannot just be copied and posted to your own website without getting permission from the copyright owner. Contrary to what some might think, unless necessary permissions are obtained, everything on the Internet is not free to exploit on your own site. I know of many broadcasters who have received demand letters from the owners of photographs that have been copied from some website and re-used on the broadcaster’s site without permission. Many have settled with the copyright holder to avoid the fate of these broadcasters who were recently sued – so take these demand letters seriously if you receive one.

And it is not just photographs found on the Internet that can be a problem. In my presentations on digital media issues for broadcasters, I emphasize that any work created by an independent contractor needs to be cleared for digital use. We have even seen cases of stations who have hired an outside professional photographer to take photos of air talent for uses in a brochure or other physical media, only to receive a demand for additional fees when that photo was used on a station website. Independent contractors generally own the rights to creative works that they produce, unless there is a specific agreement to assign those rights to someone else. That is why you can’t take the photos of your kids taken by the school photographer to the local copy store and make your own copies – the photographer retains the rights. So, when you are buying creative works from an independent contractor, make sure that the creator assigns all rights to the creations to the station, or you may be faced with this same kind of issue as you seek to exploit their creations in new media in the future.

As we wrote here, the Copyright Office itself recognizes that the owner of a photo is not always clear, and earlier this year began a proceeding to look at the best way to identify the ownership of the rights in photographs and to give copyright holders easier ways to enforce their rights, while at the same time making it easier for users to be able to obtain the necessary licenses for the use of those photographs. But, until new rules are adopted, the burden is on the user to hunt out the owner of photographs to make sure that they have any necessary clearances, whether it be through a direct agreement with the photographer, or through a clearance house like Getty Images. Care now can avoid bigger problems later.