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You know the phrase “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission?”

Well, that’s not a game we play in PR, and for obvious reasons. Do something wrong, and you’re not asking your client for forgiveness – you’re asking their stake holders, the media and the public at large.

Which is why it is so hard for me to admit this – taking content from other blogs without permission is a big no-no. Obviously I’m not talking about straight-up plagiarism (at least, I hope that would be obvious.) I’m talking about sharing photos, images or artwork.

But what about giving credit? While it’s not exactly being given permission, it’s one way to cover your back in case you are ever accused of plagiarism, right?

Well, ehhhh, maybe. Ish. We actually discussed this on the blog a few months back after a discussion with PRSA’s go-to legal discussion team, Fennemore Craig. The biggest take away from that session was that while the laws are unclear, no lawsuit has ever been won by someone claiming plagiarism or copyright infringement if the “borrower” gave credit where credit was due. (Actually, that was the second biggest takeaway. The first is never, ever mess with Disney’s content.)

And since then, Team HMA has made darn sure that all photos pulled from the internet were given proper citation. (Well, at least this member of Team HMA has been nagging everyone to properly cite their photos.)

So you can imagine my total agony when I attended the PRSA WDC breakout session, “The Legal Side of Blogging: 10 Questions to Ask Before You Hit ‘Publish,’” presented by Ruth Carter.

First of all, it needs to be said that Ruth Carter is well-versed in new media type of law. I mean, her business card includes “Flash Mob Law.” Doesn’t get more awesomely hip for a lawyer than that. It also needs to be said that she has LOTS of great advice, not just on photo use. You can read more about her tips from the session here. I also recommend spending some time on her blog. It is a plethora of valuable information.

(It’s also worth mentioning her book, which I do plan on reading, if for the title alone: The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Arrested, Fired, or Killed)

But back to photos. I almost cried upon hearing this:

“What if you’ve been using Google Images or you haven’t kept track of what images you’re allowed to use?

Probably no one wants to hear this, but I’d rip every image out of your site and start over, making sure that you own or have permission to use every image on your site”

That’s a lot of blog remodeling. So, moving forward, what’s a blogmaster to do?

To keep your blog nice and law-abiding, Carter recommends using photos that are clearly marked as fair-use available under the Creative Commons license. These include photos from websites like:

And of course, companies or individuals can pay for the rights to stock photos like Getty Images.

Or you could try your hand at Microsoft Paint, like this blogger did.

BUT, while it would be easy to say “play it safe” and only use free-use photos, it is actually a LOT harder than one would imagine finding an image that is compelling/funny/interesting – you know, the stuff that draws the readers in. Plus, we all know “everybody else is doing it” is an excuse that didn’t work on mom and probably isn’t going to work in a court of law. But when a photo has been shared beyond the point of original ownership (we’re looking at you, Pinterest) how can it be determined who the content really belongs to? Or rather, how can the content owner know who to blame? Once something has gone viral, is it fair use?

I rather like the first notion that no one has ever successfully been taken to the bank when they gave proper credit. But then again, there are a lot of notions that I like that don’t particularly fit within the rules and regulations of the world. I also don’t like the notion of being sued in the first place.

What do you think? Do you always play it safe when using photos in your blog? Or is this a “mattress tag” law where no one will really be prosecuted? Or has no one ever been prosecuted because the internet is a big hairy content free-for-all that lawmakers are just now figuring out how to supervise?

At least one thing is for sure – never, ever mess with Disney.

Stephanie Lough
Stephanie Lough
A former HMA Public Relations employee.

2 Comments

  1. Kelly Potts says:

    I always use photos that I at least give credit for! Although, I love Disney’s photos!

  2. Scott Hanson says:

    And the legal industry is thriving…

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