Innocent Internet Infringement

September 1st, 2007 | Posted in General

A few days ago I posted the Deadline Demon, as I am occasionally wont to do, and I got a few comments from some readers saying how they like and use the image as chat icons. I posted the following comment of my own:

I don’t know what to say to that, gentlemen. I’m flattered, but you do realize that you shouldn’t just take any image you want to from the internet and use it for whatever you want to use it for? You should at the very least ask permission of the creator, be it myself or anyone.

I got two responses, one a gracious “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize”. Thanks for that, and my immediate response was: “No Problem. You most certainly have my permission to use it”.

The other was this:

hmm… not sure you realize what I’m using it for. it’s just a little icon that my mother and a few friends see when I show up on their chat. I’ve already pointed a few of them to your site when they asked what it is.

I must say I’m a little shocked and a little offended by your reaction. Let’s just say I’ve removed it from my batch of chat icons just like I’ve removed your site from my bookmarks, which should prevent any further impropriety.

This last is a perfect example of what is the pervasive attitude among internet travellers. They have this magic box at home that brings all these images and text onto their desktop at the clack of a few keys, and they feel they can use these items for whatever purpose they want. In fact, as evidenced by that reply, they feel it’s their right to be able to use them. They get offended if someone has the tenacity to tell them “hey, you have to ask the copyright holder for permission to use that.”

The fact is the internet is like one big, published periodical. The things posted on it are copyrighted by those who create them, and using any of them without permission is copyright infringement. It happens all the time and without a single thought, but that doesn’t make it okay. It’s odd, but the pictures and text posted on are seen as no different in the eyes of copyright laws as the pictures of little Billy and the story of how he ate 16 ears of corn at the family picnic posted on Aunty June’s blog. People have a hard time understanding that. The current culture says it’s okay to take an image and make it into your avatar, or your IM chat icon, or use it on your own blog to illustrate your own story. In essence, you are publishing that image when you place it on the web, and representing it as your own. Even if you give the original creator credit, you are supposed to ask for permission first and more importantly, honor the decision of the creator should they choose to withhold permission.

I know all that sounds like an ego ride. The “Deadline Demon” image is a little doodle I did when bored at the theme park one rainy day, and it has no real value. I would never refuse permission to use it for any non-commercial use to anyone who asks, and my response would be both to say I am flattered they like it so much to want to use it, and thanks very much for asking. I didn’t respond as I did in the comments because I was mad some folks were using my Demon image… I just want to try and do my part to educate people about responsible use of the internet and the intellectual property on it. If I don’t get angry when I walk down Times Square and see a dozen caricaturists with my artwork on their displays, copped from the internet, why would I care about some IM icon? It’s important for everyone to learn to respect the rights of creators, because it’s not always okay with them to use their images (BTW, just to clarify it’s NOT okay with me to use my caricatures as samples as display samples on a caricature stand… if I could have gotten any of those Times Square artists to understand any of my English I would have ‘educated’ them as well.)

There are circumstances where the use of an image is okay without asking permission. Using the analogy about the internet being “one big periodicals”, a blog post or web page is essentially a published ‘article’. As such, it’s considered “fair use” to use an image representing a subject or theme of a story or article written. For example, my post yesterday was a movie review of “The Bourne Ultimatum”. I posted an image of the movie’s poster. That’s fair use. I wrote an article about the movie and used an official image for it. Using pictures of the iPhone, the HD-DVD player and other gadgets I have also talked about is also fair use, as long as the image comes from the source of the article. If I were to go to someone’s website and take their portrait of Matt Damon, I’d be infringing on their copyright as that image is not from Universal but from a separate creator. Even that is a little dicey, as the source of the poster image might have been undisclosed from where I got it.

These people who freely use copyrighted images aren’t evil, they are just following the internet mentality and don’t realize what they are doing is wrong… or don’t think their use of it is the same as ‘real’ infringement. I think the fact they they are sometimes offended when the facts are pointed out is that they feel they are honoring the creator of whatever image they are using because they chose that one over the other billion or so to use. They get mad when the creator asks them to remove it or ask for permission first because they see it as being ungrateful. That’s not usually the case, and certainly not for me. I’d just like people to understand the rights of others and respect them.


  1. Eric Merced says:

    I am in total agreement with you on this Tom. I don’t think anyone should be offended when they are told about this matter. It’s like having a car. Getting inside the car and driving off with it without permission is considered by law stealing. It does not matter if your are my friend. You have to ask permission first because when it comes down to it, the car is mines. I am the OWNER of that car. The only way it will not be considered stealing is if I have given you permission to use my car. I think there is more honor and respect to an Artist when soomeone say, “hey, can I use this image on my website for so and so reasons” versus just surfing one day and finding that image you created just placed in the persons website without your permission. In a sense, you are flattered. But on the other hand, you cannot help feel the lack of respect from the website owners part.
    So you do what you have to.
    And you did. 🙂

  2. cedricstudio says:

    I’m really glad you posted this Tom. I feel the same way, and am glad to hear somebody else is trying to educate people about it. Although, honestly, I fear in the long run it may be a losing battle. With sites like YouTube where the studios sometimes actually encourage the posting of their copyrighted works if it brings in free advertising for the show/movie, the lines between fair use and copyright violation are increasingly blurred, and I don’t see things getting any clearer in the near future.

    Still, great article and great blog. Keep up the great work.

  3. E says:

    Before I comment I would like to say that I am in no way critical, but curious. If anything, I come to be educated. =)

    Although the second response was improperly worded, and nothing can justify that, someone has a small point. No one expects art used on you IM icon to be your own. If they ask you where it’s from, and you tell them, you’re not claiming it as your own.

    As the artist, you, of course, have the right to tell people how and when they can use your artwork. As you have said you’d rather people comment before using your work for any reason, I am sure that no one will use your artwork again without your permission, even if it is only for an IM icon. But if you hadn’t, as long as people did not claim it as their own, they really weren’t doing anything wrong.

    I, personally, do treat CNN and Aunty June’s blog in exactly the same way. As long as I don’t know CNN/ Aunty objects, I see no reason why not to repost the image/text, then write “- Image/text from [Somewhere].com”, ideally linking to the specific post/page it comes from, even without their permission.

    Isn’t it fair use to reuse something from the internet, as long as you say where you got it from? Whether something belongs to a single person, a company, or anything else.

    (In all these cases of course, it is assumed that the image/text is not being used to make a profit, in which case I believe fair use does not hold?)

  4. Tom says:

    Thanks for the comment and your thoughts.

    Your assumption is that copyright is not applicable unless the copyright holder specifically forbids anyone from using their intellectual property with a disclaimer or statement. That is not the case. Copyright is automatic upon creation of the work. Copyright is not transfered to another without the consent of the copyright holder. Permission must be given, not specifically withheld.

    Giving the copyright holder credit or a link is not a way around using a copyrighted image. The reason for not reposting the image/text you use as an example is that it is copyright infringement, plain and simple.

    Making money off it is also immaterial. Those considerations just create a reason for actual litigation. Giving away prints of someone’s artwork is the same as selling it.

    The internet is rampant with copyright infringement, and everybody thinks it’s okay because everyone does it. Like Cedric says above, the nature of the internet makes it almost impossible to do anything about it. Most of the infringement is not hurting anyone… it’s not like an epidemic of bank robberies. Still, a little knowledge is not a bad thing.

  5. […] not evil thieves, but are simply uninformed. (See cartoonist Tom Richmond’s thoughts about Innocent Internet Infringement and Realtors on his blog.) If you do see your work being infringed upon, even if it’s small, […]


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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