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A Picture May be Worth a Thousand Words, but Is it Worth Your Reputation?

Written by: Denise Blackburn-Gay, APR, Fellow PRSA
Ethics Officer, South Carolina PRSA

A couple of years ago, I lost a senior copywriter due to theft. He wasn’t stealing from the agency; he was stealing from the internet. It seems that he was researching photos to accompany his blogs and when he found something that he liked, he simply downloaded it. When a copyright attorney notified me, I sat down with the employee who explained that he didn’t realize this was theft. He vowed never to do it again. We removed the image from the internet, and with little more than a slap on the hand, the situation was resolved. We were lucky.

You can imagine my surprise when a few months later, I received an email from a longstanding client. This time it was the client who had been notified by an attorney who represented an artist whose illustration appeared alongside a blog written by this same employee. This infraction carried a fine, a loss of credibility with a respected client, and the dismissal of an employee who ‘didn’t get it.’ You wouldn’t steal a photograph or artwork from a retail store. Why, then, would you steal it from the internet?

I was pleased to see that PRSA’s recent online executive communications series included a segment on ethics and the law and a discussion on copyright infringement. Just in case you didn’t know, downloading images from the internet is unlawful, but do you really need a webinar to tell you that? Maybe.

Nearly every photo taken or graphic image that is created gives that person who takes the photo or creates the image a protectable right to prevent others from using or reproducing their work. While there are some exceptions, the photographer or designer generally owns the copyright.

Now that you’re in the know, what can you do to protect your agency’s reputation or that of your client? While it’s true that you can’t micromanage your employee’s actions, you can let them know what you expect.

Subscriptions to stock services such as BigStock, iStock, Adobe Stock Images, and more provide plenty of photographs, illustrations, and video from which to choose. Make these subscriptions available to your employees. If you work with photographers who have shot for you or your client, these images may be accessible, as well. Check your contract to make sure they are royalty free. Local photographers may also allow you to use images provided you include a notation crediting their work.

In addition, Pixsy.com, the very site that helps photographers protect their work and recover damages, can be one of your biggest allies. Through a reverse image search, you can see where the photos are being used and where they originated.

Most importantly, maintain an open dialog with your employees. As creatives, they understand the importance of protecting the integrity of their work. Make sure they also understand the value of maintaining the reputation of the agency.

While a picture is worth a thousand words, it may not be worth the thousands of dollars you may have to pay if it is improperly used.

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