Copyright is governed by Title 17 of the United States Code. Although copyright arises automatically in the creator of a work as soon as it is fixed in a tangible medium (paper or digital), the owner must register the work to enforce the copyright in court. Timely registration is required to recover statutory damages, which range between $750 and $30,000 per work for ordinary infringement.
Willful infringement may result in damages up to $150,000, while sufficient proof of innocent infringement may reduce the statutory damages to $200 per work. A work is considered timely registered if the owner submits an application and a copy of the work to the U.S. Copyright Office before the infringement starts or within three months of publication.
Don't assume a work is in the public domain.
Just because a photograph is on the internet does not mean it is in the public domain, and using just a portion of a photograph or image is not necessarily fair use.
Once a copyright term expires, it enters the public domain. For works created on or after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the duration of the author's life plus 70 years. Anonymous, pseudonymous, and works made for hire have a copyright of 120 years after their creation or 95 years after the first publication, whichever expires first. The term for works created between 1923 and 1978 has been extended by 20 years. Generally, works that were published before 1923 are in the public domain.
Fair use is another way to potentially avoid copyright infringement. 17 U.S.C. ? 107 lists the various purposes for which reproduction of a work may be considered "fair use," including criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.
Find the owner and request permission.
If you can locate the owner through the copyright notice, contact the person or company to request permission. You may receive it for a nominal fee or even for free.
Keep in mind that the current owner may not necessarily be the original author or creator of the work. It could be a work made for hire, so the employer or corporate entity may be the owner, or the original owner has sold or otherwise transferred her right to reproduce the work. With that said, the best place to start is by looking at the copyright notice on the work, if there is one. Look at the name next to the (C) and look up or Google that person or company's name for any available contact information.
There are also websites that contains numerous links to sources for tracking down copyright owners of various media (listed in the Resources section below).
Purchase licensed stock images.
There are several companies that sell the rights to use stock images. These include iStockphoto.com, which contains tens of thousands of stock photographs and drawings starting at approximately $2.00, depending on the size and quality of the file. Of course, the clip art available on your MS Office may be royalty free, but it does not necessarily create the most professional image for your site.
Sign a contract with your web designer.
If you hire a web designer, include an acknowledgment by the designer that all images used on the site have been properly obtained. A few easy and inexpensive measures taken while building your website can prove extremely valuable in avoiding future infringement issues.