It’s time we had a heart-to-heart talk about this. We all know that images make web content look good, much like butter makes things taste good, right? Images make everything more compelling. We are fed studies about how Facebook posts get more “likes” when there’s an image in them, how presentations are more compelling with pictures, how a text-heavy website won’t be as engaging as one broken up by attractive graphics, and how emails with images get read more than images without images.

Are we all agreed here? Images are good.

Well, yes – except when they are very, very bad.

You must be wondering… what could make an image bad?

I’m glad you asked. Any image can be bad if it results in you getting a nasty-gram from a lawyer, or a bill for $800  – or more – from an image service provider. Don’t you agree?

Let me tell a short story to make my point, and then I’ll circle this all up for you. Cool?

In conjunction with a movie release, several of the stars of that movie created some hilarious “stock photo” images. You know, the obligatory group shots of people around a table, or someone standing in front of a chart, smiling at the arrows headed up to success? Like this one – and yes, that is Vince Vaughn, right up front there:

Tempting Stock Photo

These were all over Facebook for a week or so, and I must admit, I trolled the comments on several of the posts (mainly from AdWeek and Mashable). I was alarmed to see how many people were talking about using these photos on their websites, or in ad campaigns.

Alarmed. I was alarmed. Did you catch that?

I was alarmed because the nice folks at Getty Images, which owns iStock, have only licensed these images for editorial use. What does that mean? It means that, while I am perfectly within bounds to have it in my blog post, if you were to use it for an ad campaign, you would be violating the copyright of the image.

Yikes! Does that mean you could get a bill, or a lawyer nasty-gram? YOU BET IT DOES.

This does not only apply to these images. Let’s face it: we’ve all been there. We need an image to complete our blog post, and we go do an image search using one of the search engines. We find one we like, right click, save-picture-as, and insert the picture right into our blog post. Need an image for an email, or that new landing page on the website? Go grab an image from the web.

Don’t do it any more. Please. It’s tempting, and oh, so easy, and oh, so wrong – and you could get oh, so sued.

Just because an image is accessible through a web image search, that doesn’t mean you can legally use it. You would not believe the number of times I have seen comments that disagree with that, but trust me. Unless you see language that says you CAN use it, assume that you cannot.

Too many people have found this to be true – the wrong way.

Here’s the thing: Getty (most famously, but others do it, too) has a reputation for finding their images that are not properly licensed, and sending letters filled with legalese to those whom they feel are in violation of their licensing agreement. Here’s a good article about that topic. My takeaway? Even if you don’t end up in court, you could end up paying a hefty sum to Getty – or to some other image owner – or to an attorney.

Take the safe route, not the easy route. You’re going to have to either create your own images, or buy some images.

But wait! Perhaps you are thinking, “What about Flickr?” Well, Flickr does have some images that are licensed through Creative Commons. You can’t take just any image off Flickr if it isn’t licensed through Creative Commons, even if you provide attribution to the image creator. If you do, you are violating the image terms of use. If you choose to use Flickr, most images that you can legally use will require attribution along with the image (which looks terrible on a website, and only slightly less terrible on a blog post), and you may not be able to legally edit the image in any way.

So, back to creating your own – which is a good idea if you have graphic design or professional photographic skills in your back pocket, or the budget to hire those skills – or buying the images you need. You can get really decent images for as little as a buck, and great images can range up into the hundreds of dollars. The downside of the inexpensive images is that they’re going to be more frequently used by more people, while the more expensive images will be less replicated around the web.

No matter which route you choose – creating or buying, it’s far less risky than just grabbing a random image from an image search result – and NO NASTY-GRAMS will come your way!

Oh, here’s a stock photo of James Franco for you to enjoy. Like butter, right?

All rosy now!

If you want the Vince, James, and company pics yourself, you can get them here. Remember, editorial use only.  (To see the exact language from Getty/iStock as to what that means, go here.)