Do You Make This Mistake With YOUR School’s Website?

Beware! Don’t turn your school website into an easy target for copyright trolls.

Violation red rubber stamp on white

Managing your school’s website can be challenging. It isn’t enough that it be current, informative, friendly, and positive. If you handle your school website management incorrectly, you can end up with some expensive legal problems. Unfortunately, innocence of the law or even being well-intentioned doesn’t make your school exempt. For our schools, we avoid this problem for them by purchasing and using royalty free images on their websites as part of our services, but not all schools are so lucky. 

So, today let’s review image copyright and how it can impact your school website.

Copyright issues for images can get your school some very stiff penalties and possibly a lawsuit (or at least a threatened lawsuit, which many school attorneys will advise you to settle out of court). Let’s give you a few examples of how this might typically play out:

Example #1: school website updates

You have staff members who are updating your district or school websites (or maybe even individual teacher websites) using a content management system (CMS). They find this great picture on the Internet of smiling students eagerly engaged at computers. They post it on the school’s website (or their teacher website or your school’s social media pages). Obviously, the intention is to show that enthused learning is taking place at your school. The image does exactly what you would hope it will; it reinforces the message of the written word and sets the visual image you want to represent your school. The problem is, by posting that photograph on the website, which just happens to be a rights managed image (meaning a photographer is entitled payment each time someone uses his image), you have infringed copyright law. If discovered, you are liable for fines, penalties, and possibly a lawsuit.

Example #2: school web design

Your school purchased a CD of clipart designed to be used by teachers in lesson prep and worksheets for instructional purposes. There are some images there that your staff selects to use on the website (or a blog or their teacher website). Although the school paid for this clipart collection, the licensing terms (if anyone were to read the fine print) may indicate that these images are only to be used in certain circumstances—and that may not include your website or other publications. Assuming that you would be safe in using these images could be a mistake. Unless they have clearly defined the image as available for public domain or royalty free, you are taking a risk.

Example #3: student work and your school web pages

You have a page on your website that highlights student work. Great idea. But is this student work subject to copyright protection? You bet it is. From the moment it is created, it is copyright protected, and the age of the creator doesn’t matter. It is a good idea to publish student work only after both the student and his or her parents have given their permission to publish the work (posting to the website is publishing it). The copyright belongs to the child and the family.

So, what is “Fair Use”?

Sometimes school personnel are under the impression that using materials like photos, graphics, logos, videos, and printed materials are considered “fair use” because it is for education and a good cause. And in many cases, no one would complain. But, some situations have been litigated and lost, like excessive photocopying or using “home rental” DVDs school-wide. “Fair Use” while complex, is simply a guarantee that copyright laws do not infringe on freedom of speech, which allows critical commentary or reviews. What is considered “fair use” by teachers for a limited use within their classroom is far different when these same items are published on a local area network (LAN) or the World Wide Web (via your website). “Fair use” has been interpreted to include those limited uses that are not likely to deprive a publisher or an author (or artist or photographer) of income. The extent of the use would have an impact on the legality, so the wider the use, the bigger the issue. If you aren’t sure, play it safe.

How to play it safe?

  1. Understand the copyright law
    • Copyright law protects many creative efforts, including literary work, photographs, drawings, paintings, music & lyrics, films, choreography, and much more.
    • This includes any original creation, and it grants the copyright holder exclusive control over when, how, and by whom their work may be used.
    • Copyright law doesn’t protect underlying ideas or facts. (Although using other people’s words to express those ideas or facts may constitute plagiarism.)
    • The term “public domain” refers to the uncopyrighted. This can be due to its age, the nature of the authorship, works by a federal government employee, or works published before 1923.
  2. Avoid infringement
    • Don’t take anything from the Internet, or anywhere else, because it is nearly always copyrighted. Saying “I found it on the Internet” or “but, it didn’t say it was copyrighted,” won’t make it legal.
    • In most jurisdictions, including the U.S., it isn’t necessary for work (a photograph, image, etc.) to have a copyright notice on it to be copyrighted. Nor is it required for a copyright to be registered. Basically, if it doesn’t say it is in the public domain, consider it copyrighted to be on the safe side.
    • In the US, works published under copyright are no longer covered by copyright after 75 years.
    • And, don’t think that if you scan someone else’s work (photo or image), that it can then be considered your copyright—it doesn’t work that way either.
  3. Obtain CC zero, public domain, or royalty-free images from reputable sources
    • Royalty free does not mean “free.” It means that the image is not “rights-managed.” Companies like Associated Press, Corbis Images, and Getty Images sell photos that are rights managed. This means that you can purchase a license to use a photo once (based on the specifications of the license). Personally, we cannot recommend Getty Images or their free image embedding service. But if you choose to, please be sure to review their detailed Terms of Use. (They use very aggressive and punitive methods of protecting their copyrights, and if they find you have used one of their images, even in error, you won’t get a warning to remove it. They will threaten immediate legal action if you don’t pay the fee they assess within two weeks—and it isn’t a typical fair market price either, so hold on to your wallet.)
    • Public domain images are those that may be used freely by everyone because they are not protected by copyright. In the U.S. they may become public domain when the term has expired (like before 1923), or if the U.S. Government (or employees) created it, etc. Here’s a great resource for more details.
  • A Creative Commons (CC) license is one of several public copyright licenses that allows free distribution of an otherwise copyrighted work. The CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) means that the pictures are completely free to be used for any legal purpose. You can modify, copy, and distribute them and no attribution is required. Other CC licenses require attribution, so look for CC0 images. (See our list of free image resources below.)

There are safe school website options!

  • Don’t rely on resources like Google Image Search to keep you from infringement (even when their advanced search filter indicates that your image of choice is labeled for reuse). There is NO guarantee that whoever uploaded that image actually identified that image correctly or had the right to do so. User beware!
  • Take your own photos! With the quality of cell phone cameras today, and digital cameras that provide excellent quality for even the novice photographer, snap your own. You’ll have photos that reflect your school and its students. It is fun for students and staff to see people they know on the school’s website. Plus, you’ll save yourself from any worries about copyright infringement. NOTE: Be sure you get parental permission before posting photos of students on your school website. Many schools include this form as part of their registration process and as part of the student handbook each year. 
  • Use free or royalty-free sources. For royalty-free sources, we currently use for our school websites. While not inexpensive, we are happy with the quality and the service BigStock offers.

(We avoid iStock and Corbis, as Getty Images now owns them, so we can’t recommend them). 

Also, search “creative commons zero images” for more public domain sites. Just read the licensing for each site to be sure you are getting what you want and that you use your image correctly. Many of these sources require that you attribute the photo to the photographer and link to the photo’s page. Be sure you read the requirements.

Some companies use bots to scour websites for infringing—stolen—images (and we understand supporting photographers and artists since they are entitled to make a living just like the rest of us). But, some companies, particularly Getty Images, has become infamous for the grossly inflated values they are placing on infringed images (like demanding $800 for a similar image they sell for $50) and for their bullying tactics to small businesses, Mommy bloggers, churches, and schools. They send a fear-inducing copyright infringement demand letter along with an outrageous payment amount, far in excess of any possible losses due to the infringement. They usually claim that payment is due within two weeks, and bullying type threats of legal action are plentiful. They often wait until near the end of the statute of limitations on this so they can increase their demand amount by claiming it was on the website longer. (The U.S. statute of limitations on copyright infringement is three years.) 

There are some nasty horror stories on the Internet about the thousands of people they have targeted and how litigious it has become. Their “F” rating with the Better Business Bureau might be another indication of their reputation. While I think most of us would agree that photographers and other artists should be paid for their work, these tactics are shameful. However, to stay out of hot water, just be sure the images you use are ones you have the rights to use. Avoid these issues, and be very judicious with your image selection.

In summary

Train your staff.
Make sure your staff understands that they should not just grab an image from the Internet and use it on a website, blog, or social media (ever). They are probably infringing on copyright, and the website owner is responsible for its contents.

Take your own photos.
Use your own photos where possible. If you want professional-looking photos for your school’s website, hire a local photographer to come out to the school, and require that they provide you with full-use rights to your photos.

Use legal resources.
If you use photos from other sources, be sure they are public domain, royalty free photos, or CC0. If you use a web developer, be sure they are using royalty free images or public domain images or that your school is the owner of that license.

As always, if all of this sounds like a lot of work, School Webmasters will do it all for you as part of our monthly services. Not only do we keep you out of copyright infringement hell, but you’ll have a well-written, beautiful school website that stays current and will help you increase enrollment and improve communications. Give us a call today and in a short time, you can start focusing on your real job—educating.

(Disclaimer: the author is not an attorney, and this blog shouldn’t be substituted for legal advice from a copyright lawyer. Just be aware of the possible implications when managing and updating your school websites, and hopefully you’ll avoid needing a lawyer in situations like those described.)

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Bonnie Leedy, CEO