Using Google Images on Your Church Website? Careful…

Search for anything on Google, click on “Images,” and — voila! Thousands of images matching your search appear.

It’s so easy to copy or save any of those images for use on your church website or blog or in your church email. It’s so tempting.

Just don’t do it.

The image you want probably is copyrighted; 85 percent of images displayed in Google searches are protected by copyright, and, as for the rest, Google does not display complete or accurate copyright notices for all images it shows in search results, according to the Center of the Picture Industry. The Center, a coalition of photographers and picture agencies, filed a complaint against Google, alleging Google’s improper use and display of copyrighted images, with the European Commission in November 2013. You can read about that here.

Even so, you might think you’ll get away with using that one perfect image you found in a Google search.

After all, how would the photographer holding the copyright ever know that you used his image in an email that went to only 80 people? Or how likely is it that that the copyright holder will see her image on your church’s website?

Well, getting caught is more likely than you might think, and getting sued is, too.

Photographers now have ways to embed a digital watermark, an invisible code with copyright and ownership information, in all of their images, and to trace the use of those images across the web.

Now, you might think that, even if you’re caught using a copyrighted image without first paying for it, no one will come after you and make you pay.

We used to think that, too.

And then we got an email from a small church in Florida. A worldwide image bank was demanding $995 for use of one of its photographer’s images on the church’s home page.

Friends of Ministry developed and hosted the church’s website, so the church naturally turned to us for help, although the image bank’s position was that the church, not the website developer, was responsible for payment.

We had placed the image, which we had acquired legally through one of our web hosting companies, so we felt we had ethical and moral obligations to step in, and we did.

Here is what we learned:

It doesn’t matter how large or small the image appears on your website or in your email. The image in question here was used at the size of a large postage stamp, and it appeared for just a few weeks on the church’s website.

Although we had acquired the image legally, the image was no longer in the hosting company’s image bank, so we had no proof that we had purchased the right to use it. It’s not enough to acquire an image legally; you must also be able to prove that you’ve purchased (and still have) the right to use it.

It’s sometimes possible to negotiate with the copyright holder, even after you’ve violated his rights. We were able to negotiate away the demand and the threat of a lawsuit.

Image copyright holders are more aggressive about protecting rights than you might imagine. One report suggests that Getty Images has sued or threatened to sue thousands of bloggers, website owners, graphic designers — even reverends, churches and other non-profit organizations. According to an article in The Guaradian, Getty Images sent a church in Lichfield, Staffordshire a £6,000 bill for photographs used on its website. In that case, “a volunteer had included a couple of images sourced from Getty, a large picture agency, without paying for them,” The Guardian reported.

You can’t be too careful.

You can use Google’s Advanced Image Search to find images that are in the public domain (here are instructions) and “labeled for reuse,” but even images that turn up in those searches are labeled with copyright warnings. In one of our recent Google searches for copyright-free images, we saw an image “labeled for reuse” that we know for certain is copyrighted, as it is for sale on another website.

We’ve always been very conscientious about purchasing rights to images we use on churches’ websites. We spend hundreds of dollars annually for appropriate images for the dozens of websites we host, develop and maintain. And even we got in hot water.

Because we never want to land in it again, we searched thousands of images on our computers and on the websites we host to confirm not only that we’ve purchased rights to use all of those, but that we know where we purchased those rights. We removed all images for which we could not verify and prove ownership.

To guarantee that your ministry is in compliance with copyright law, you should do the same, removing questionable images from all church computers.

Here are the safest ways to find images for your website or blog:

1) Set up an account at an online image bank so you can purchase appropriate images for your site, blog, Facebook Page and emails:

When we first established our accounts with these agencies more than a decade ago, great images were selling for $1 each. Now those same images are going for $5-$17 or more, but it’s still possible to find suitable photos and art for $1 per image; you just have to spend more time looking for what you need OR sign up for a subscription during a sale.

3) Use sources of copyright-free images, such as:

(But be careful; some of these websites have started displaying images for sale, as well as free images, so you must pay careful attention to how images are labeled.)

Finally, make sure that all staff members and volunteers responsible for your website, blogs, email and social media accounts know and understand copyright law. And make sure they understand the consequences that your ministry can face for disregarding the rights that belong to photographers, artists, and online image banks.

When you take these steps, you’ll have no worries about copyright infringement. No worries = a good thing!

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