Brands and marketers, listen up. It’s 2015, and if digital image rights and permissions haven’t been something you’ve addressed, you need to start now.

Why? Because as you’re increasing your use of imagery and visual communication (as all of us are), you’re also increasing your risk of a potential legal problem or damaging your brand.

Just think about the breadth of social media options alone that leverage digital images — Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, blogs. With varying usage terms across these platforms and a public that continues to view copyright law loosely, marketers using images need to confront the many shades of grey regarding what is legally permissible and what may cause a rights quagmire.

The Digital Rights Quagmire

Don’t wake up one morning on the wrong end of a lawsuit for stealing someone’s images or even inadvertently misusing them.

This year, Microsoft was forced to remove its Bing Image Widget after Getty Images, a major provider of licensed photos, sued the tech giant. Getty stated that Microsoft’s tool, which enabled website publishers to embed digital photographs on their sites, was a "massive infringement" of copyrighted images. According to the lawsuit, rather than drawing from a pool of licensed images, the product grants access to the billions of images that can be found online, without regard to whether the photos are copyrighted.

In yet another case, pharmacy chain Duane Reade was sued by actress Katherine Heigl to the tune of $6 million. The chain had used a picture of Heigl shopping at one of its stores and posted it on Twitter. Eventually the parties worked out a mutually beneficial agreement, but the snafu caused an unnecessary brand crisis, and cost the company legal fees, time and effort involving PR teams, executives and lawyers.

The issue these examples raise for marketers is: How can we protect our brand and ensure that the images we use online don’t become a legal headache?

Always Get Permission

There are many confusing regulations around image ownership and copyright, especially when it comes to social media. Sophisticated businesses typically have legal teams that ensure images are properly obtained or licensed for use in specific situations, yet even the most savvy have slipped.

The best rule of thumb to prevent any legal hiccups is to always ask the photographer (or agency) directly for rights to license or use the image. This includes images you find on Flickr, regardless of the license on the image.

Further, if the photo you’d like to use is aimed at selling or directly promoting your business, you must expect to pay for it. If you’d like to use a specific image for a Facebook ad (or promotional post) without the correct license to do so, then you’re breaking the rules.

Establish Go-To Resources

To help simplify things, pick a few go-to resources your team can use to find photography. This will increase efficiency and help avoid rights and permissions issues. If you’re using a stock agency, most reputable sites (e.g. Offset by Shutterstock, Stocksy) have already taken care of many of the intricacies, such as model releases, in their legal agreements.

But platforms like Lattice, which enable you to connect directly with the photographer, can also accelerate your ability to find quality imagery for your marketing efforts while facilitating direct communication with rights owners.

Implement a Workflow

Putting an end-to-end image selection and approval process into place is also key. Assigning one person to lead this effort and manage trafficking is always best. But, if you can’t do that, document the guidelines for using imagery and share them broadly. Make sure important details are captured for each image, including where it came from, details on how to reach the image creator, where it may be used and how long it may be used for. Have people put this in a central repository (more on this below). Build a process and then stick to it, to avoid nasty consequences.

Get Organized

If, like most organizations, your photos are stored in or scattered across locations even you can’t name, then it’s time to get a centralized system that your team can manage. Marketers will often find an image stored locally and incorrectly presume the company has rights to use it. That’s dangerous.

Good image storage or asset management systems will enable you to read a photo's metadata, which should contain both rights information and contact details to reach the creator. This not only helps make sure images have been vetted, but it lets your team search, find and access *approved* images on their own. So in addition to avoiding rights crises, you’re also helping your team jump on marketing opportunities more efficiently.

Start A Company Photo Library

Lastly, if photography truly is an important part of your brand strategy, consider hiring a photographer to produce original, high quality photography to start your company photo library. Developing your company’s original photo library and style will not only help distinguish your brand online and establish consistency, but it will also eliminate any murky legal issues.

Title image by Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB / Shutterstock.com.