This Mistake in Your PowerPoint Could Cost You $1,000+

As I finalized my presentation to organizations from three western states, my past success with this same group motivated me to excel. Suddenly, I realized that five slides needed individual photographs to visually make a point about five different target markets.

Minutes later, a staff member in my office began sending me a steady stream of possible stock photos. We chose five terrific ones and I rehearsed again before packing for an early morning drive to Phoenix.

Months later, a Fedex letter appeared on my desk. An unpleasant demand letter lurked inside. The letter said we were guilty of copyright infringement and had to pay thousands of dollars in just a few days or get sued for thousands more.

Exhibit A was a print-out of a screen-capture of a single page of my PowerPoint. The offending photo jumped off the page at me.

Four of the stock photos we used were inexpensive, about $20 each. We paid for them. The fifth was priced shockingly at several hundred dollars. We had balked at the cost, failed to find something else and carelessly left the image in the PowerPoint as a placeholder.

We work hard to avoid making this kind of mistake for our clients, yet we made it in our own presentation. Bottom line, even if all you do, from time to time, is create a Word doc or PowerPoint presentation and put images in it, make sure you own the rights to use that image. If you don’t, your copyright infringement could cost you $1,000 per image, or more.

To avoid copyright infringement, follow the process we correctly used for a client during that same time period.  As we developed the client’s website, he sent us an image he liked very much. He’d used the photo in marketing materials and presentations, loved it, wanted to feature it on the home page.

However, our client had no record of purchasing the right to use the photo and had just “found it somewhere on the Internet.” Here’s our first tip, then: when you purchase the right to use an image, file your receipt so you can find it.

Suppose you have an image but are not sure where it came from. Our second tip is to Google image search. Alternatively, you can use the free service, TinEye Reverse Image Search ( With TinEye, you just upload the image and TinEye reports back origin and owner.

We use TinEye for our clients, along with one or more other sites to determine ownership and availability. The legal use of the image our client liked so much cost less than $100.

Unfortunately, we can’t disclose the name of the company that sent us the nasty Fedex package and other equally hyperbolic messages. Our settlement agreement with that company’s law firm includes a confidentiality clause. Here’s what we can share.

The company demanded we pay over $1,000 as a penalty for the illegal use of one photo. Worse yet, if we didn’t immediately cut a check, the minimum amount due would exceed $3,000. If the case went to trail, attorney’s fees could cost thousands more.

If you go online and Google different phrases for “photo” and “copyright infringement” you may find examples similar to the threatening letter we received. One search result we turned up showed a letter demanding the recipient immediately pay $10,000!

I’m not a lawyer, but the facts about copyright law are easy to understand. One, it doesn’t matter whether you meant to use a photo without buying the rights. All that matters is that you did. Two, ignorance of the law is no excuse. Three, it doesn’t matter if you were helping the most admired nonprofit in the universe.

The companies that conduct mass mailings threatening legal action are in it for the money. Their business model is to discover infringement and collect huge payments by threatening to haul you into federal court.

By now you may be wondering how this company discovered our PowerPoint presentation. At the request of those attending the workshop, we posted the PowerPoint, as a PDF, on our website. We didn’t mention or promote the PDF anywhere on our website, but a default process did make the PDF discoverable.

Often, the companies who focus on making money by discovering infringement use bots (programs) to produce potential revenue sources. The bots crawl through Internet sites 24 x 7 x 365. The goal is to identify organizations using copyrighted image on website pages or in PDFs, Word docs and other files that are posted on sites. From there, it’s just a few steps before form letters go out demanding thousands of dollars in immediate payment.

Avoid our mistake, pay for any images you use and keep your receipts. Don’t just get the picture. Pay for it.

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About Dave

Dave Tedlock is the head of NetOutcomes, a digital marketing firm. For years he has written a marketing and technology column for various publications, including the Tucson Citizen’s Tucson Business Edge, Idaho Business Review, Inside Tucson Business, and The New Mexico Business Weekly. Tedlock taught writing and business communication for eight years in many universities, including the Harvard Business School and Iowa State University. For 13 years he worked in ad agencies as a copywriter, account manager or creative director. Tedlock has published short stories, scholarly articles and a writing textbook (with Paul Jarvie). He earned a Master’s degree in Fiction Writing from Brown University. He lives in Tucson and Santa Fe.

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