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Beware: Read this before hitting copy-paste

Friday - 5/2/2014, 7:31am  ET

Control V keyboard (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Hitting copy and paste can have legal ramifications, says Data Doctor Ken Colburn. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

Are you guilty of copyright infringement?

Data Doctor Ken Colburn offers tips on how you can legally use photo images.

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By Ken Colburn, Data Doctors

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Anonymous asks: 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?

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 website owners and photographers: 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 who uses one of their images without paying for it.

I can't give you legal advice, but I would definitely recommend you start researching what others in your position have done. A Google search for the words "Masterfile" and "copyright infringement" should get you going.

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

1. 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 applies to images 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;
  • At any time by the federal government

A copyright lasts for 70 years past the author's death, so just about everything you see on the Internet was created by someone who 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.

2. 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, by removing a watermark for instance, your exposure can become much greater.

3. There wasn't any copyright information posted with the image, so I'm not liable.

The law prohibits accidental and willful copyright infringement, and only recognizes the differences when determining damages. There is no requirement to post copyright information; always assume everything you see on the Internet is copyrighted.

4. I'm not making money from using the image, so it's OK.

How you use the image has nothing to do with copyright infringement. Whether you were using it on a personal blog or 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.

5. 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.

6. The image said it was "royalty-free," so I assumed that it meant it's free to use.

Royalty-free refers to the ability to use the image multiple times after you secure the initial rights -- generally by paying a fee.

If you're looking for resources that allow you to legally use images, Creative Commons is a type of license developed for people who want to license their work, for free, for certain uses. You can search for images and their specific uses here.

Getty Images recently created a free option to embed images by following these instructions.

If you use a lot of images or want an inexpensive place to buy images, check out Bigstock Photo.

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