You need a picture for your blog or for your Web site — that’s easy — just go to Google and click on images. All you have to do is cut and paste. This simple mistake can cost you plenty.

We recently received a demand letter for $1,299 for a picture that appeared on one of the back pages of our Web sites. The picture was of a woman speaking on the phone with a headset. It’s similar to hundreds of others online. Unfortunately, a contract Web designer we hired used a copyrighted picture and did not obtain the appropriate license to use the picture. Upon receiving the letter, we immediately instructed our regular Web designer to remove the picture in question.

I went to the Web site of the company that had contacted us and learned that the licensing fee for this picture was $550. Needless to say, I was shocked at the price they were asking and even more so by the idea that their damages were over double what it cost to license the photo.

Since someone else actually used the image improperly, it didn’t seem that we should have any liability. This is simply not the case. In fact, if the use was inadvertent, as in our case, the company can ask for treble damages. If it was a blatant use, they can ask for quadruple damages. As the company who contracted with this particular designer, our company was responsible. I was surprised at how strong the case law was in this area. Also, it was clear that the violation of the copyright could result in damages far exceeding what was in the demand letter. What really surprised me, however, was that the person who violated this copyright didn’t even say he was sorry; it was the other company’s fault for being “hard-nosed.”

As a real estate professional who may be blogging or hiring a company to do a Web site for you, it’s critical that you take steps not to copy someone else’s work. Here are some of the pitfalls to avoid.

1. Copying text from another blog

It’s acceptable when blogging to reference another blogger’s work, provided that you use a link back to the original source. On the other hand, if you use someone else’s text, the search engines track duplicate content. What this means is that they can recognize the original post and differentiate it from the post that contains copied information. If this happens, you can end up in what is known as “Google Hell.” The search-engine company may drop your site or completely remove it from its ranking system.

2. Using music on your Web site or blog

Numerous students have been charged with copyright infringement for sharing songs. Remember that radio stations pay a fee to the record label to play the songs you hear. Rather than using someone’s music on your site, a better approach would be to produce your own video or audio greeting. It’s more personal and you don’t have to worry about copyright infringement.

3. Using photos from Google, MSN or Yahoo!

The attorney who contacted us said that using pictures from the search engines is the most common way that people get into trouble. The search engines pull pictures from a variety of sites. In fact, a site may have used a picture with the appropriate license. If you copy it to your site, however, you have violated the owner’s copyright. The way copyright owners can find the picture on your site is through www.Picscout.com. Many of the professional photo companies use this service to protect the photographers they represent.

4. Be wary of free photo sites

Many “free” photos actually are copyrighted. Carefully read the licensing agreement before using them. According to the attorney I spoke with, some of these sites use copyrighted material without compensating the artist. The site may lead you to believe it’s legitimate, when in truth it’s not. The best way to avoid this is to use companies such as www.photos.com or www.iStockphoto.com where there is a clear-cut licensing fee. If you are blogging regularly, you may want to obtain an annual subscription. Prices range from several hundred to approximately $2,000 annually. Sites such as iStockphoto.com charge a few dollars for each image you use.

Is this an issue you need to address? Absolutely! Avoid copying the work of others, whether it’s their writing, pictures or music. Obtain appropriate licensing agreements when you do use someone else’s work. To avoid this issue entirely, carry your camera with you and snap your own pictures. Most importantly, before hiring anyone to do a Web site or blog on your behalf, inquire about where they take their content and how they obtain it. If you don’t get a straight answer about obtaining the appropriate licensing, go elsewhere.

Bernice Ross, national speaker and CEO of Realestatecoach.com, is the author of “Waging War on Real Estate’s Discounters” and “Who’s the Best Person to Sell My House?” Both are available online. She can be reached at bernice@realestatecoach.com or visit her blog at www.LuxuryClues.com.

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