Copyright law applies online, regardless of how the image is used
Looking for photographs or artwork to use on church websites, brochures, programs, or other creative projects? Type a description into an internet search bar and plenty of image options will pop up online. But are you aware that most, if not all, of the images online are protected by copyright law?
Even if a copyright notice is not displayed, all images are copyright protected.
Accessible Doesn't Mean Free
While it's easy to download photographs, videos, music, movies and other creative pieces, the publishing rights to these works belong to the person who created them. A ministry that uses a creative work without obtaining permission from the creator can be held liable for copyright infringement—an offense that can include hefty fines and legal fees.
One church found out the hard way about fines and fees when they posted an image they found on another church's website. Before long, the church was contacted by the company that owned the image, a company that sells stock photography and images. Even though the church's infringement was unintended, and the image was removed as soon as they were contacted, the church had to pay a fine for copyright violation.
Every organization—including churches and schools—must obtain permission from the copyright holder before using any type of image posted online (photos, music, movies, television shows, etc.) Regardless of whether it will be printed in a brochure, posted on a website, or projected on a screen, the work is the property of someone.
Even if a copyright notice is not displayed, all images are copyright protected. If a photo appears on several websites, it doesn't necessarily mean all of the sites were granted permission to use the image. Don't assume that because the image appears in several places that the copyright holder isn't concerned with how or where the image is used.
Always seek out the original source of a photo or other image and ask permission for its use. A good general rule: if the source cannot be found, don't use the image.
When "Free" Isn't Free
Several companies online offer royalty-free images. Royalty-free does not mean costfree, nor does it mean copyright free. It is simply permission granted by the owner of the image to use copyrighted materials without paying a royalty, or fee, for each instance of use.
Royalty-free images are often available for a one-time use at an affordable price, but are not "free" from cost or to use without copyright permission. Once purchased, royalty-free images must be used as the licensing terms allow. If someone desires to use a photo differently than those terms, a different fee may be assessed.
Keep in mind that though Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), along with other music licensing companies, can help address copyright issues associated with Christian songs, videos, and movie clips, no such copyright licensing company exists for photos and images.
To stay safe, churches and ministries should always investigate the copyright status of photos or other images before using them. Simply giving credit to the creator of copyrighted works is not enough, and it's no defense against the possibility of fines and legal fees associated with copyright infringement.