User Elected Image Copyrights



Our project allows teachers to create learning objects (activities, lessons, videos) that may incorporate uploaded images for the purpose of language learning. Our EULA states that users certify that they have the rights to use and distribute the images they upload. Using some JavaScript the activities become part of any web page any number of students may be reading. These images are not actually published from our site or statically available through a search engine. They are only seen when a student elects to dynamically generate activities.


Rather than just allow teachers to upload images, we would like to build a feature that does an Internet image search and makes those images available for use in activities. i.e. Search for "apple" and get pictures of apples you can drag into an activity. The source of the image would be acknowledged with a link to the source page, and it would be up to the author of the activity which images to choose.


This feels like copyright infringement, but I'm not so sure. Pinterest, Tumblr and countless others seem to be getting around the liability by offering a mechanism for reporting copyright infringement. What is my actual exposure in the real world? Is the worst I can expect to receive cease and desist notices?

Another part of our system allows users to create their own activities that only they, themselves, would see. Would I need to worry about copyright infringement at all in that case?

Legal Copyright Intellectual Property

asked Nov 16 '11 at 05:31
192 points
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1 Answer


Some background first. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), service providers are not liable for the copyright infringement of their users provided they follow some procedures outline in the statute. This is usually referred to as the Safe Harbor clause. However, to be classified as a service providers, among other things, they must not be the party providing the content. For example, YouTube may end up hosting infringing content that their users upload, but they do not provide their users with possibly infringing images and music to put in their videos.

Now to your first question. If you are the one providing infringing content for your users to use, you would probably not be covered by the Safe Harbor clause. That means that you could be sued for copyright infringement.

As to your second question, just because it would be hard for the copyright holder to discover that you are infringing their content doesn't make it any less of an infringement. The fact that only one logged in user will see the infringing content may make the odds of getting sued lower, it's probably not a good idea.

answered Nov 16 '11 at 10:53
Stephen Burch
915 points
  • Thanks for the thoughtful explanation. Just to clarify, in acting as a proxy to a search engine, I wouldn't meet the DMCA's Safe Harbor standard because I am "providing the content"? Wouldn't I still simply be a carrier in that case since I am just relaying the search engine results? Would a disclaimer stating that we make no claim on the source of the image make any difference? – Laramie 12 years ago
  • I would love to give you a definite answer, but unfortunately there isn't one. The less of a passive provider you are, the less likely you will be eligible for the safe harbor protections. If you are providing people with a Google image search, it could probably be guessed that the majority of images returned are someone else's copyrighted image. If you are providing a search of public domain images, that might be a different story. – Stephen Burch 12 years ago
  • Heeding your cautionary advice, I decided to use only public domain files. While this is more appropriate for Stackoverflow I found that adding the following to a BING search will result in nearly ALL public domain images. site:(.gov OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR There may a couple protected, but it's a measure of safety. – Laramie 12 years ago

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Legal Copyright Intellectual Property