The Danger of Stealing People’s Content, Images & Identities

by Brett Borders

Recently, the Iran arms smuggler for Hamas (a Palestinian Arab terrorist group) was assassinated in a Dubai hotel room. The suspects used forged passports bearing the names and photos of real people in Israel and other countries. These innocent people woke up one morning to find out they had been framed as killers: their name and reputation was “assassinated,” ruined in the international press.

These people were framed, most likely by an Arab or Israeli intelligence operative. Photo: AP

Even if you think that using someone else’s name or picture won’t be a big deal, it can have serious and international-scale repercussions. It can also backfire and mess up your online reputation. Here’s how:

Using Someone’s Name or Likeness Without Permission

My friend Sitka in Oregon woke up to find out a picture of her face was featured in a Korean national newspaper. Her friend, who was teaching English in Seoul, saw her face in a column on improving English skills. She had no idea how the Korean paper possibly got her picture. What did she do? She blogged about it. This can easily create negative publicity for the organization that used the person’s image.

The Law: The person who takes the photograph, or who makes the art or diagram owns the copyright to it. It is legal to use a photo featuring a person’s image on the Web as long as you took it yourself, or else have permission from the photographer or copyright holder.

The Safe Bet: Regardless of the law, many people are very sensitive and may get angry if a (subjectively) “unflattering” or unexpected photo of them appears on your site. Use a cartoon avatar of someone instead of their head shot. If you must use someone’s likeness in an ad or website without permission, blur their face out with Photoshop or crop them out of the picture. If you must use someone’s name as an example, do what the Weekly World News tabloid does… and use an extremely common name like, “John Smith“.

Using Other People’s Photos & Diagrams Without Permission

If you copy and paste a photo from someone else’s personal website or Flickr stream – and add it to your own website – they may well find out. And they might get mad. Then, they might blog about it and “call you out” in public, creating a worse reputation for yourself.

The Law: These days, almost everything online is copyrighted, whether you see a copyright notice or not. Unless you are explicitly and reliably assured the image is public domain, you should assume it is forbidden to use. You’re not allowed to upload the photo to your own webserver and use it on your own site. Courts have ruled that “hotlinking” – or linking directly to the image on someone else’s website and using their bandwidth – does not directly violate US copyright law… but it makes some webmasters quite mad.

The Safest Bet: E-mail or call people first, before using their photos. If they don’t respond to you, you can always say you asked first but didn’t hear back. If you are determined to use someone’s photo without her express permission, offering them credit with their name and a link to their site may help soften any animosity that could develop. If someone “busts” you for using an image you don’t have permission for, apoligize profusely and offer to remove it ASAP don’t argue. Don’t hotlink if possible. If you want to use someone’s diagram, create one with similar information yourself… don’t just swipe theirs entirely.

Dangers With Scraping People’s Text or Web Content

I have had some of my best blog articles and headlines blatantly “ripped off” by competitors. I got a little mad, and I either wrote to the offender in private or left a tactful public comment noticing the similarity. Other people seem to get a lot more angry than I do. They will sometimes engage in a nasty defamation or extortion campaign to get “revenge” for stealing their intellectual property.

The Law: Web scraping is illegal in the US, although it is extremely common. You cannot legally take paragraphs of text content published on someone’s private web site and copy it onto your own. You may be allowed to use short excerpts or quotes for commentary and discussion purposes, according to US courts.

The Safe Bet: Don’t publish text from anywhere else on the internet, including a private e-mail sent to you, on your website. Google doesn’t like duplicate content, plus… the original author will likely find out and get mad… and it can easily backfire on you. You have to make sure your own writing is 100% original, but you also need to check the originality of articles that your employees and guest contributors submit to you. Check out Plagiarism Today for more detailed info.

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  • http://twitter.com/SpotlightNC SpotlightNC

    Great article! It's sad that we have to worry about our work being used without permission. Thanks for drawing attention to the issue.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    Yeah, it can really get some people in hot water. Some people get really, really mad when you “swipe” their stuff.. .and it can blow up in a bad way.

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