Media Mayhem and ADversity
Risk Management for Advertising, Design, and Media Professionals

5 Online Copyright Issues Every Graphic Designer Should Be Ready to Handle

Copyright law — it's not exactly the most fun topic of conversation. After all, copyright violations can cause graphic designers to be sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars, even if these violations are a complete accident. As PR Daily reported , even a small mistake — like using an image pulled off a Google image search — can leave you with an $8,000 lawsuit.

That's precisely why we should be talking about copyright, and more specifically, online copyright laws. With the Internet making it easier for people to find and copy images and designs (or be subconsciously influenced by them), you'll need to make sure you avoid any expensive copyright problems.

5 Online Copyright Issues — And How Graphic Designers Can Be Prepared

To help you make sense of internet copyright infringement, let's examine five common scenarios that a graphic designer may encounter:

  1. Client wants a design that resembles something from a competitor's website. In this case, a graphic designer should be familiar enough with online copyright law to recognize that this is not permitted. Translation: if you do this, you could be looking at a lawsuit. If a client wants you to do anything sketchy, you'll need to bow out.
  2. Client sends you images without obtaining copyright permission from the owner. This is a big no-no. For example, the client might have photos on their website that a photographer licensed to them exclusively for use on the site, but didn't give them the full copyright. If you use images that clients don't have the rights to, you could also be sued — even if you're just following a client's orders.
  3. Client wants copyright to your work. This is a standard part of your business. You do some creative work — maybe a logo redesign — and your client wants to own the copyright. Great, but as the American Institute of Graphic Arts warns , once you assign copyright to a client, they have total control of when and how the design is used. When you assign copyright to your client, make sure you retain the right to use it the design in your promotional materials and portfolios.
  4. Client uses your designs for more purposes than you originally agreed to in the contract. Rather than give a copyright to a client, you can use a license agreement that outlines when and how the client gets to use your graphic designs. This protects your value. Theoretically, a client has to come back to you if they want to use the designs you made for their website and adapt them for white papers, marketing material, and other projects. But what happens if clients break the terms of their licensing agreement? You can send them an email explaining that you're available for this work (as per your licensing agreement), and if that doesn't work, you can send a cease-and-desist letter or file a lawsuit.
  5. Someone infringes on your copyright. Okay, let's say the worst happens. You find out that another business has been using your work and passing it off as its own. When this happens, you can sue the infringing party.

If you want a more thorough analysis of the laws behind copyright issues, you can check out our risk management eBook for media professionals.

Online Copyright Law and the Limits of Your Graphic Designer Insurance

Many graphic designers sign up for an Errors and Omissions Insurance policy, which may cover some copyright lawsuits. There are important limitations you need to be aware of:

  • E&O won't cover lawsuit costs when you knowingly violate someone's copyright.
  • Errors and Omissions Insurance won't cover infringements committed against you.
  • E&O only covers claims and lawsuits when someone accuses you of infringing on their copyright.

When can you use E&O? If a client's competitor sues you for violating their copyright, E&O can sometimes cover the cost of the lawsuit. Other design professional liabilities — missed deadlines, poor workmanship, and client complaints — may also be covered.

As with all business insurance, it's important for you to take your risk management in your own hands. Combine your insurance coverage with best practices to reduce your risk.

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