By Max Clarke

Small business owners are being urged to check the images they are using on their websites in order to guard against costly copyright claims.

The Forum of Private Business issued the warning after a noticeable increase in calls to its member helpline on the issue in recent months, with several businesses receiving letters demanding payment for unwittingly using copyrighted pictures.

Often, small businesses entrust web design companies to source and upload images to their websites, on the presumption that the design company will have secured permission to use them.

However, all too often this is not the case and liability for any copyright infringement lies with the small business, rather than the design company which developed the website.

As a result, the Forum is urging smaller businesses to check they are legally entitled to use the images on their websites in order to avoid potential claims from powerful copyright holders such as Getty Images, one of the world’s largest stock photography companies, which actively pursues copyright infringement involving its images.

Forum Chief Executive Phil Orford said: “We’ve received a number of calls recently from members who have been notified by Getty that they owe money because they are, however unwittingly, using unlicensed images on their websites.

“I think the digital age has blurred the boundaries of image copyright in many people’s minds and some business owners mistakenly think that because an image is freely available on the internet, it can be reused without permission.

“Additionally, many smaller businesses entrust web design companies with the whole process of registering and creating their website, and presume that their web design company will only use images they are entitled to use. However, this isn’t always the case, so I would urge business owners to check they are legally entitled to use each and every image on their websites.”

Mr Orford added: “Recent advancements in technology mean it is increasingly easy and cost-effective for copyright-holders to track the use of their images, so small businesses really need to be careful if they want to avoid receiving a letter through the post demanding money or threatening legal proceedings for copyright infringement.”

The Forum, which is a not-for-profit business support organisation for smaller companies, has issued the following advice to business owners:

• Don’t use any old image you find on the internet. Google’s image search has made it quick and easy to find relevant images online, but this does not mean that all images you find are free to use. The copyright will almost always belong to the person who created the image, regardless of whether it’s accompanied by a copyright symbol.

• Don’t think the image won’t be found. Even if no one but you visits your website, publishing an image without owning the copyright or buying the rights to publish it infringes on the rights of the person or company that owns the image, and modern software means its quick and easy for copyright-holders to track the use of an image.

• Always ask your design company. If you’re working with a web design company to build and manage your website, you are responsible for ensuring they have licensed the images for your use. Ask them where they have sourced the images from and ask to see proof that they have purchased the appropriate rights — or buy them yourself. If no valid licenses exist, the liability may fall on the end client — your company.

• Only use the image within its rights. When you buy from a stock photography website, you’re usually not buying an image itself but the right to use it in a certain way. For example, if you want to use an image commercially, i.e. in your logo, the license might not allow it, or you may have to pay more for what is known as an ‘extended license’.

The rights to an image may also only be available for a limited period of time, so business owners should check the terms and conditions attached to the image carefully when buying it. These are often known as ‘rights managed’ images and they only allow you to use the image in the way you state when you purchase it.

Free images are available under the Creative Commons/ licence scheme and are often used by bloggers. However, they are not always appropriate for use on business websites as many licenses do not allow for commercial use.

Instead, by buying images from reputable stock photography websites and using them in an acceptable way, business owners can prove that they bought the rights to use the image. Some companies even offer a legal guarantee to protect a business if it is accused of copyright infringement by the original artist.