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Can't Afford Licensing Fees? Here's What to Do

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Whether in your advertising or in your shop decor, you may want to use a striking image or fantastic photo that you found. But be careful: the image may be copyrighted, and without a license to use the image, you may be committing copyright infringement.

"But," you say, "copyright licenses can be expensive, and my business doesn't make that much, and besides no one will probably know." All fair points, but none a proper legal defense. So here are some ideas if you want to use images but can't afford licensing fees:

Pay the Piper Instead

If you decide the licensing fees are too steep and you use a copyrighted image anyway, you can prepare to pay some fines. Under federal copyright law, infringement can cost you anywhere from $750 to $30,000. And if you do it on purpose, i.e., if you know the image is copyrighted and willfully commit infringement, the statutory damages could jump to $150,000.

And these are just the statutory penalties -- you may have to pay any additional actual damages suffered by the copyright holder, as well as hand over any profits attributable to the infringement. So you've got to ask yourself one question: Are the licensing fees really more than the fines and penalties for infringement? (And then you can ask yourself whether you feel lucky enough to avoid detection and prosecution for copyright infringement.)

Find Your Own Photo

Not every image is subject to copyright. So if the image fees are out of your price range, you can try a few other options:

  • Use fairly: The "fair use" doctrine allows portions of copyrighted works to be used without the owner's permission. Heck, you can even use someone else's Instagram photos if you alter them enough to be "transformative."
  • Go to the public: Even a previously copyrighted work may end up in the public domain. If the copyright has expired or the holder failed to renew the copyright, the image belongs to the public.
  • Point and shoot: Everyone's phone has a camera on it, and we're all self-styled photographers now. So if the image you want is under copyright, get out there and create a similar one. It'll certainly be cheaper and more fun than paying fees and/or fines.

If you're still thinking of using a copyrighted work without paying the licensing fees, or especially if you already have, you may want to chat with an experienced intellectual property attorney soon.

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