When you build or update your website or create other marketing materials, make sure you have permission to use the content you post

Recently I was organizing a magazine story when the owner of the featured contracting company sent me some photos to accompany the story. Some of the photos looked like they were taken by a professional photographer, so I asked the contractor where they came from.

“I give you permission to use all the photos; they were pulled off the Internet. The World Wide Web is public to all,” he wrote back in an email.

I was stunned at this response. Did this gentleman – obviously an intelligent business owner – really believe that anything he grabbed from a website was his to take and share regardless of scope or limitation? His nonchalance and the ease with which photos, stories and the like can be grabbed off the Internet for personal consumption make me wonder if his attitude is widely held among business owners.

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Practically every company providing support services in the gas, oil and mining sectors today has developed a website, and a quality website requires quality content. Just like websites, other marketing materials are becoming more sophisticated as contractors vie for attention from potential customers. Brochures, graphics on the side of service vehicles, advertisements in newspapers, magazines and trade journals … they all need content to become effective tools to build your business.

The big question is how you develop that content. If you run a small company, maybe you do all the legwork yourself, taking photos of your equipment inventory, writing up descriptions for the types of services you offer and building a website through free or low-cost templates available online. Or if you have a marketing budget, you may go as far as hiring a local photographer to shoot a team photo and your crews at work for your website and you hire a professional website developer to build your site.

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Or like the contractor described earlier, do you feel like anything you find on the Internet is fair game to be used for content on your website? Maybe you’ve pulled a photo or a story that mentions your company and patched them into your website? Or maybe to add some color and interest to the site, you’ve grabbed a photo or artwork from a random website for use on your own?

Your business is providing a myriad of critical services to energy or mining company customers. Your bread and butter is not working out the details of what you can or can’t put on your website or the side of your truck. But you still need to understand what is permissible in the world of content – whether it is the written word, photos or artwork – to avoid getting into trouble. So I’ve decided to write about a few areas where I could imagine GOMC contractors innocently stumbling into a beehive of legal entanglements over misused content.


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The important rule of thumb is that just because you found it on the Internet doesn’t mean you can use it for any purpose. Sure, passing along a joke or a funny photo to a friend is not likely a cause for concern. But as soon as you use content generated by someone else to promote your profit-making business, you might be in for a stern email or a threat of litigation.

Writers, artists, photographers and corporations who employ creative teams are generally unwilling to share what they produce with anyone if they’re not getting paid for it. They take a dim view of someone taking their work to generate profit the same way you would feel about providing service for a customer and then not receiving payment.

This is especially a concern if you repurpose the content of a major corporation with deep pockets, and some are notoriously relentless about going after the smallest violations with impunity. The Walt Disney Co., for example, takes copyright infringement seriously, as it frequently pursues companies that use images of its trademarked cartoon characters for advertising purposes. Companies like Disney employ lawyers to protect their intellectual property and they are not shy about doing their job.

And with the Internet, the world is getting smaller and it’s getting easier for content producers to find the most minor instances of content theft. You might think it’s OK to “borrow” a photo or a logo found on an Internet search. Nobody will notice or care, right? Wrong.

If you know you’re using something without permission, don’t build your entire marketing program around that borrowed catchphrase or image. You might find yourself retooling your entire marketing program at great cost to avoid legal trouble.

Here are a few places where you should take great care to avoid using content without permission:

Truck graphics

Did you ever see the Warner Bros. cartoon character Pepé LePew emblazoned on the side of a septic service vacuum truck? I have. While it might be legal to paint a generic skunk on the back of a truck, you might run into some trouble if Warner Bros. can show a judge that the skunk looks quite a bit like its Pepé. If you hire a sign company or a graphic artist to design and decal your service vehicles, make sure they have secured permission to reproduce a photo or known character before you drive off the lot.


The Nike swoosh is an incredibly simple piece of artwork, but that belies the fact that creating corporate logos is big business. As you search for effective ways to brand your business, make sure your new logo doesn’t bear a close resemblance to one you’ve seen on TV, in magazines or on the Internet.

Hiring a professional graphic artist to produce a logo is a good suggestion for two reasons: First, a well-executed logo will build your professional image and carry your company forward for many years, paying for itself over and over again. Secondly, graphic artists are well attuned to the logo landscape, meaning they’ll help you avoid closely duplicating a logo used by another company.

Photos, music, stories and slogans

While it’s not universal, most content you see on the Internet is not free to reproduce as you wish. Technology has made it easy to drag a photo off someone’s website and drop it into a Web layout or onto a company advertisement or newsletter. But just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s legal. Before you simply take something off a website, ask for permission to reuse the content.

A photographer, writer or artist might have a mechanism in place to pay a small licensing fee for permission to use their content. If you want to find a generic photo or drawing to illustrate something on your website, for instance, there are dozens of clip art and stock photography websites that make a wide range of content available for minimal fees.

If you want something original, hire a writer, photographer or artist to produce something unique and memorable. The dollars you spend on your own content now could be money saved from legal challenges down the road.

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