I see lots of folks nowadays with little disclaimers on their blogs and websites to the effect that copyrighted images and prose that they have posted are under the “fair use” doctrine or for educational purposes or personal use only. Apparently they’re under the impression that by doing so they are somehow protected from problems with copyright violations.
That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Fair use is a defense only after you have been sued! That means after you have retained a lawyer and spent a pile of money. Even then you may lose your case and end up paying penalties.
Furthermore, big syndication companies like Getty Images have people who prowl the Web looking for violations. Their corporate lawyers then send you a letter to the effect that you either license the image (for fees in the low to mid-four figures) or they’ll take you to court. And they will. Either way, it’s going to cost you a couple of thousand dollars, and you can still end up with the penalties.
The fact that these people are actively seeking out violations (Getty makes millions a year from this, and no doubt so do their peers) makes this a bit more serious than just the chance of someone seeing that you’ve used their image and asking you to stop. Add to this the fact that you don’t know if an image listed on — say — Flickr as available under Creative Commons is, in fact, original and you’ve got a case of your butt hanging out in the breeze. If you got them off Google Images, the chances are excellent that they’re not public domain unless they were published a hundred years ago.
You can’t even trust images from Federal government sites, because if they were taken by an employee while off duty, the employee retains the rights, not the USG. If they were taken in the performance of official duties, then you’re home free — but how do you know? Answer: You don’t.
State governments and agencies retain copyrights, and you have no protection legally. Although the likelihood of a state deciding to sue is small, remember that state budgets everywhere are in a crunch. It could happen.
Remember, this is worth a lot of money to the companies involved. You are not safe because you’re just a little guy.
The same things are true, to a lesser degree, about written material. And it’s a lot easier to track down than images.
The company I write for paid for experts to research this. You’re getting the information for free. What you do with it is your business.