Are you using rights-protected images the wrong way?
Update to this post, 6/17/20: The image licensing scam discussed below just happened to another client. They received a threatening message through their own web response form, linking to a Google site address that anti-virus identified as a Phishing site. Here's what the message said:
"This is Melika and I am a licensed illustrator. (No such thing) I was discouraged, frankly speaking, when I came across my images at your website. If you use a copyrighted image without my permission, you must be aware that you could be sued by the copyright holder. It's not legal to use stolen images and it's so filthy! (Oh, my, yes it is, Melika.)
Check out this document with the links to my images you used at (phishing website address) and my earlier publications to obtain evidence of my copyrights. Download it right now and check this out for yourself: (I know you're not kidding. OMG. Link removed)
If you don't remove the images mentioned in the document above within the next several days, I'll write a complaint on you to your hosting provider stating that my copyrights have been infringed and I am trying to protect my intellectual property.
And if it doesn't work, you may be pretty damn sure I am going to report and sue you! And I will not bother myself to let you know of it in advance."
Wow, that's certainly threatening. And completely false.
If you don't know where the images on your website or social media came from, or perhaps you found one on Google Images and just used it, but didn't actually obtain the rights to use it, you should be wary. Image licensing is a real thing. If you're using a rights-protected image without permission, and the rights holder finds it, you're likely to receive an invoice from an attorney. And the dollars are usually many times the cost of a license.
If you're caught, you can't just switch the image out and not pay. They have evidence that you deprived the rights holder (photographer or illustrator) of income. And to make things a little more complicated, a lot of the big image houses like iStock, Shutterstock and Getty, have purchased smaller online image providers that you may have purchased image licensing rights from. You might get a letter from someone that you never dealt with, and have to prove you purchased it.
If your developer or designer selected the images for you, make sure they have the rights to use it. The letter will go to the site owner, not the developer. Cropping, coloring or otherwise modifying the image usually doesn't protect you, they'll usually be able to tell it's theirs.
And here's the link-building (or phishing) scam...
To make things worse, there's a new link-building scam going around. You get an email from someone claiming to own an image on your site (not an attorney). But rather than asking for money, they just ask for a link back to their website from "their image", and then you are free to use it. Here's the scam: they don't own the image. Sometimes they will give you a link back to a site that has the same image on it, but truth is, they stole it. Now, they get link credit for something you're going to end up paying the real owner for.
If you get a note asking for links like this, or a request for royalties or use payment not from an attorney, beware. It's probably a hoax. Check it out carefully. Here's a good blog post on image licensing.
We encourage clients to use quality original photography for two reasons; one, it will be unique on the web, and attributed to only your business. Image search is big for SEO, and every image you use that's truly yours gets you a citation. That's why the scam exists. Second, it will fit your audience and messaging better, helping you to tell a more compelling story.
Bill tracks news and changes in SEO as it affects site design and content development. Follow this blog if you're a business or agency owner that needs basic info to help with your own projects!