Blogs are a great way to market your legal practice and the more visually compelling the better.  Careless use of social media and its visual impact can spell real trouble, though.  We’ve posted about things to watch out for in responding to on-line reviews, using Facebook and sharing on-line opinions.  Now comes another risk to think about:  copyright infringement.

The issue is in the spotlight because an award-winning photojournalist filed a complaint last week in Pennsylvania district court against a national plaintiff-side personal injury firm for allegedly infringing his copyright by using one of his images in a blog post on the firm’s website.

Fatal fire

The plaintiff alleges that in June 2017 he produced a video documenting a fatal fire in East Coventry, Pennsylvania, in which a nine-year-old boy died.  He registered the copyright in the video with the U.S. Copyright Office and solely holds all rights in and to the video, he says in the complaint.

The defendant law firm is alleged to have infringed the copyright with a blog post on its “For the People” website that “prominently featured” the video.  The complaint attaches a copy of the post, which appears to picture an embedded video from a CBS TV affiliate in Philadelphia.  The posted article describes the fire, notes that the kitchen can be one of the “deadliest rooms in the house,” and discusses how residential landlords in general may potentially be held liable for house fires.

Tips for staying on the (copy)right side

The defendant law firm has called the copyright infringement suit “meritless,” and has not yet responded to the complaint.  But whatever the merits, the filing itself offers a good opportunity to take a look at your own practices in using images in marketing yourself and your firm.

Creators of visual or audiovisual works have a protectable interest in their works, namely a copyright that exists from the moment the work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.  Although registering a copyright may be a prerequisite to an infringement suit, a work is protected by copyright even before it is registered.

A common misconception is that an image is fair game for you to use if you don’t benefit commercially from that use.  In reality, even non-commercial use can, under some circumstances, infringe the author’s copyright, because the essence of the protection is the exclusive right to reproduce, display and perform the work.

A well-chosen image can dramatically pep up your CLE presentation, PowerPoint slide deck, blog post or firm brochure.  But the purpose of all these marketing pieces is to draw positive attention to yourself and your expertise within the bounds of your state’s version of Model Rule 7.1 (“Communications Concerning a Lawyer’s Services”).  That can backfire if they draw negative reaction.  Some ways to avoid that:

  • Use “kosher” images that you purchase via a subscription service; don’t pull things off the internet.  (The images for this blog, for example, are almost all from Getty Images.)
  • For a source of free-to-use images, become familiar with “Creative Commons” licensing, a form of royalty-free use that requires attribution.  (One of our recent posts used such an image, for example.)
  • Seek advice from someone in the know about IP law, because the ins and outs can be complicated.  If you’re lucky enough to have access to in-house expertise from a colleague, ask!  An ounce of prevention, and all that.

We hope you enjoy all the images that we use here at The Law for Lawyers Today!