Avoid Copyright Infringement on Photos

The interior designer's guide to avoiding copyright infringement.  Learn how to properly use photos to avoid costly legal action.  

A few years ago, I was talking to another designer and I warned her that some of the photos on her blog could be putting her at risk for copyright infringement.  She was immediately defensive and responded that the designers should be happy that the photos were on her site because it was free publicity.  I tried to explain that publicity or not, she was opening herself and her business to potential legal action.  She reacted like I was going to be the one to file the lawsuit!

So I hope that you'll be a little more open-minded to what I'm going to talk about today.  In other words, don't shoot the messenger.  

The bottom line is unless you took the photos on your website or have explicit permission from the copyright holder you are infringing on copyright and can have legal action taken against you.  

Copyright Law

Now, copyright law can be a bit of a gray area and I am not a lawyer, so definitely consult a lawyer for specific advice on your situation.  

The basics of copyright law is that the creator (the photographer) owns the work and can choose what is done with it.  The photographer has exclusive rights and can authorize others to do or to not do the following: 

  • To reproduce the work in copies
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work;
  • To distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  • To publicly perform the work, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • To publicly display the work, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work.

Avoid Copyright Infringement

  1. Don't ever pull an image from the internet and put on your website.
  2. Audit your site.  Go over every photo and make sure you have explicit permission to use the photo and records/proof of that explicit permission.  
  3. Take your own photos.  Consider sharing your own photos under a Creative Commons license and spreading the love.
  4. Keep good records of any photos that you didn't take.  This is the proof that you obtained the photo legally.  If it is a free download or creative commons photo, take a screenshot.
  5. Have the copyright transferred to you.  If you hire a photographer to shoot your interiors, you may be able to negotiate they transfer the copyright to you so that you are the copyright holder. Keep records.  
  6. Use Creative Commons photos.  Be careful here, because there are several different kinds of Creative Commons licenses and some of them have restrictions on use and attribution.  Keep records.  
  7. Buy a license to use the photo you want.  There are many sites that sell stock photos.  Keep records.  
  8. Ask the photographer for permission.  Keep records.  
  9. Use free stock photos.  Not all stock photo sites are the same.  Use a reputable one because there are some sites that are trying to entrap unknowing website owners into using the photos for the sole purpose of sending a copyright infringement notice.  Keep records.  
  10. Be careful when using sites like Pinterest or Tumblr.  This is a murky gray area for copyright.

There Are No Excuses in Copyright Infringement

  • You did it by accident/ innocently
  • You didn't/don't understand copyright law
  • You remove the photo from your site
  • If the picture is licensed to your web developer
  • You "provide credit" and name the photographer and/or source
  • Your site isn’t commercial and makes no money
  • You have a disclaimer on the site
  • Everyone else does it
  • You are giving the photographer free "advertising" or "publicity"
  • You paid the photographer to take the photos.  Be sure that you have permission to use the photos that are taken the way that you want to use them.  
  • You can't prove that you bought a license. 
  • You can't prove that you got it from a "free" stock photo site.  
  • Thinking it is "fair use".  You still may have to prove that in court. 
  • Everyone else does it
  • Your website traffic is very low

Examples of Copyright Infringement

As part of your latest blog post on your website, you are doing a round-up of the best bedrooms with blue walls.  You find the perfect images for your website in a google search or on Pinterest and put it on your website.  You even put source under the photo.  Illegal.  

You hire a photographer and they shoot your latest project.  You send the photos to an editor and get selected for their June issue.  You give them permission to use the photos that you sent.  Unless you have permission from the photographer to use the photos in this way, it could be copyright infringement.

You have examples of mood boards you've done for clients on your website - part of that mood board has small images of inspiration rooms.  Illegal.


The bottom line is unless you took the photos on your website or have explicit permission from the copyright holder you are infringing on copyright and can have legal action taken against you.  Is it likely that you get sued?  Maybe not.  But I want you to know and understand the risks associated with putting photos on your website (or even social media).  If you know the risks and choose to ignore them, that is your decision.  

I've heard that this has become some photographers' business model, luring people into infringing on copyright to make money in settlements.  There was even a case where a stock site was selling free creative commons photos and sent the photographer a letter demanding payment for use.  So there are definitely some shady practices.  

Think this won't happen to you?  Read these: 

Here are some sources if you do get a copyright infringement notice:

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