The unique business situation created by the Coronavirus pandemic has led to many more firms trying to stay in touch with customers by remote means, using social media and outbound communications as channels to spread their messages. After finding the right words, the need for pictures for illustration can often create an issue, leaving many to just search the Internet, click on an image and use it in a post.
This action is actually an illegal one. All photos, no matter what their content or degree of professionalism, are protected by UK copyright law and the photographer who took the image is the owner of the copyright, unless they have entered into an agreement to transfer that copyright, to someone buying the image, or someone who commissioned it.
The individual photographer is the owner of the copyright for the whole of their lifetime, plus another 70 years. The creators of any images taken since August 1, 1989 are protected in this way. 
This makes images, photos and illustrations that firms might wish to use for promotion legally protected ‘artistic works’. This includes digital images and there does not have to be any use of the © symbol to make a photo subject to copyright. 
Should you try to get around copyright law by removing an image’s copyright owner metadata, you are acting illegally and could be prosecuted. Committing any type of copyright infringement could see you facing legal action or being asked to pay heavily for a licence. Legal cases usually see the guilty party having to pay for their usage of the protected photo and pick up the costs of the legal action. Compensation may also have to be awarded and the judge is likely to order that you remove the photo from wherever it has been used.
Any deliberate infringement of copyright for commercial advantage, can also result in criminal prosecution.
The Intellectual Property Office should be your first port of call, if you are the owner of an image that has been used by another party without your permission. The IPO’s mediation service can seek to prevent the matter escalating into a court case. However, taking the matter to court is your legal right and a legal representative should be able to offer advice on what a court action would entail, if you feel you need to do this.
The moral of the tale is to be very careful when making use of photography in social media posts, on websites and in other materials. You should only buy images from an image library and for the purposes that the image library allows, under a standard licence or extended licence.
If you feel your employees may not be aware of the implications of using protected images, it is a conversation you may need to have with them. It is probably also time to check that you have legal expenses protection on an insurance policy or consider if you need to put in place. To talk to us about this, please just get in touch.