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What is fair use of copyrighted images for thumbnails? What is legal and what is not?

I am building a site that shows movies, actors, directors, etc. and would like to know the best way to get images for this. If the images are a certain size, can I use copyrighted images without permission? If so, what's the size? As far as purchasing images, I have looked on stock photo sites, but the affordable images are all for "editorial use" and not for "commercial use". To get several thousand images, the cost will be astronomical. The images are just being used to show info on the actors and the movies that they have been in. Any suggestions?

3 Replies

Shel Horowitz: Shel AT GreenAndProfitable com
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I help organizations thrive by building social transformation into your products, your services, and your marketing
You are playing with fire. The celebrity nature of your content adds another wrinkle. Beyond the question of fair use, you have all the issues of celebrities and privacy and who has rights to their image. Do not accept random advice from non-lawyers who are guessing their way through copyright law. Spend the money on an hour or two with a well-qualified *intellectual property* lawyer (other kinds of lawyers will not do. This is one case in which asking for forgiveness is infinitely more expensive than asking for permission. Note: I am NOT a lawyer and have nothing personally to gain from this suggestion--but keep reading.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of ideas you can run by that lawyer:
  1. Go to each celebrity's website and look for their media page. Often, you'll find approved headshots and action shots that are put there to be used. Be sure to take a screenshot of the permissions that are posted, and file in a way you can retrieve (i.e., put the celeb's name in the filename).
  2. Ask. Write to their contact, explain the project and how this will further add to the actors' reputation, etc. (writing this letter is a place I CAN help, BTW), and would they please supply a photo you can post.
  3. Hire a cartoonist either as an employee or as an all-rights-conveyed freelancer. Have that person create caricatures and use them instead of photos. This might help your branding too, as it will set you apart. DEFINITELY ask a lawyer about the privacy piece.
Josh Kirschner
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Josh Kirschner Entrepreneur • Advisor
Founder & CEO at Techlicious
Having explored this issue quite a bit running a media company, I wholeheartedly concur with Shel. If you use copyrighted celebrity images (especially if they come from Getty or another major stock provider), they will come after you. You could try to argue fair use at that point, but you will spend thousands or tens of thousands in legal fees to fight your case, even if you're in the right (and you're probably not).

A couple of suggestions. Per Shel, write their agent/visit website for approved images (you can get contact information for celebs via IMDB Pro - not that expensive). Second, look up publicity info/sites for movies they have been in. George Clooney's image may not be cheap on Getty, but maybe there are publicity images of Clooney from the Ocean's Twelve website that you could use.
Lester de Souza
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Lester de Souza Entrepreneur
Counsel, Barrister & Solicitor at DE SOUZAS
Copyright law varies by jurisdiction. As they said above, permission is less expensive than breach. In some jurisdictions, penalty for breach is the profit you made on the use of the property. Which means any loss is yours and any profit is theirs. You need to get permission not only for the content of the copyrighted material but also the context in which it is used. The US does not include moral rights but other jurisdictions do. Which is to say, just getting sign off and releases from the author does not always mean you can do anything you want with the material.
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