Are You an Art Thief?

Being a dentist, working with patients, keeping up with continuing education, and running a successful business keeps you quite busy. You may never give a passing thought to whether you’re an art thief. Sure, you haven’t tucked a Van Gough beneath your lab coat and stolen away into the shadows of a Paris night, but you could very well have art on your website that does not belong to you.

About Copyrights

I have had some dentists tell me, if they find an image online, they can legally use it any way they want. Others have claim, if they use a photo from a textbook they purchased in college, they aren’t breaking any laws. They bought the book, after all. Still other dentists have said that because they’re using snatched images to educate, there would be no legal repercussions. All of these assumptions are wrong. Furthermore, they imply art theft, of the Internet copyright infringement variety.

The first copyright law was instituted in 1790 by the US Congress, and the US Copyright Office was founded in 1897. Today, copyright has many facets. Individual writers, musicians, and artists who create a product have full rights to their creation for life, plus 70 years. Corporately created work bears a copyright of 120 years from creation or 95 years from publication.

A creator does not have to register for a copyright to hold a copyright. All created works are the sole property of their creators, by law, even if a copyright is not registered for a product. In the US, tangible documents, writings, drawings, images, music/sound recordings have an automatic copyright, which belongs to the creator. An author can opt to sell or give away rights to their work. Most artists sell rights to make a living. 


In some cases, often with pieces of music, a consumer (an individual or company) may pay royalties to the author. Royalties are a percentage of profits earned from using the creative product. Writers are paid royalties on their books, from publishers. Musicians are paid royalties on their music, from recording companies. When you see an image or hear a song on a commercial, the author may earn royalties.

Web Copyrights

Images found online are not public domain. Their creator, or purchaser, owns the copyright. Using an image without proper rights is violating copyright law. This is an ethical, as well as a legal, issue. Artists cannot make a living if their work is given away for free, and by placing their work online, they become vulnerable to purposeful and inadvertent theft.

How to Acquire Legal Web Photos

  1. You can take your own photos, becoming the creator, or hire someone to create images and sell you all rights. A photographer, for instance, could conduct a photo shoot, then sign over all rights to the images. You need a contract to prove the images are yours, should you ever face legal action from the photographer or creator.
  2. Commonly, businesses pay a fee for using photos online. Websites such as Shutterstock and Thinkstock purchase photos, images, and videos from artists, then charge consumers a fee for web use of the digitized form of the product. Exclusive use of one of these images costs much more, because if the rights are sold to a consumer, the stock image company can no longer offer the image in their gallery. Consumers who use online galleries digitally sign an agreement to follow certain copyright guidelines when using the gallery’s photos.
  3. You can opt to find “free” photos, which usually require that you embed a link on the photo to direct interested parties to the creator’s website or gallery, where other photos can be purchased.

Getting Caught
What’s the real risk involved? Let’s say your little dental office serves patients in Podunk, Wyoming, and you believe that by using some photos from a few websites of companies located far, far away will cause no harm. Well, let me introduce Google Image Search. The open-source tool “?¿ src-img” will tell an author if a particular digitized image is being used online. Here’s more information about the image-finding tool and how it works.

I have witnessed companies and dentists receiving faxed billing statements for thousands of dollars, based on illegal image use. In most cases, the charges are a set amount, charged for each day the photo appeared on the thief’s website. The thief can purchase the image or take it down immediately, but the invoice is legitimate.

In this article, I use the term “thief” to make a point. Usually, people are naieve to copyright law and have no intent of performing an illegal act. However, once you know, you know, and you have to do what’s right, even if it hits you in the pocketbook. If you don’t think the photos you’re using are worth what the artist would charge, use different photos. If they are worth the cost, pay it.