Does Your Association Need Image Permission Policies for Member-Generated Content?

A group of members talking around a table. May 14, 2024 By: Katelyn Riley and Naema Mallick

Establishing image permission policies streamlines the content review process and reduces the risk of unintended copyright infringement.

Many associations rely on member-generated content for a wide range of projects, including social media, journals, and websites. For consistency and efficiency, associations often establish policies on desired writing style and formatting; however, these policies often do not effectively cover photo usage. Establishing image permission policies can be a powerful tool to ensure that authors use images correctly, and it helps reduce liability for the association.

The Need and Benefits of Image Permission Policies

Without guidance from the association, members may not understand how to determine if a photo is copyrighted or may incorrectly assume that nonprofit status automatically grants fair use. Often, authors inadvertently attribute a photo to a secondary source or do not ensure that a license covers the intended use. The expanded use of generative AI complicates the issue even further. Mistakes, if uncorrected, may result in copyright infringement claims against the association. Many organizations monitor closely for unauthorized use of their photos, especially online, where new technology can quickly scan websites for perceived violations. Regardless of the outcome, addressing claims can cost significant time and money. It is vital that associations proactively review content to avoid this scenario. Depending on the content and staffing levels, implementing this level of scrutiny into your association’s workflow could pose a challenge. Luckily, staff time and effort can be significantly reduced by establishing policies and providing authors with the proper tools and guidance.

Policies Considerations

When creating policies, associations should consider which responsibilities would fall under staff and which would fall under an author. For example, how should an author gain permission to use an image? The answer will likely depend on your staffing level and current policies. For some associations, it may be preferable for a staff member to reach out to a copyright holder on an author’s behalf; for others, it may be more efficient for the author to gain permission as part of the content development process. In the latter scenario, the association’s next step may be creating a permission form or stock language for authors to use. Another consideration is how the process would differ if an image license needs to be purchased. Policies should also address how authors share permission information with the association. Keeping detailed information on image permissions will make verification easier and provide a paper trail if the association receives claims or questions in the future. After policies are established, associations should develop and routinely provide updated guidance to authors. Consider including information on how to find public domain images, how to find an original source of an image, how to determine copyright status, and how to cite sources correctly.

Addressing Generative AI

The field of AI is rapidly evolving, so it is important that organizations keep up to date with laws and regulations surrounding AI. It is strongly recommended that associations work with legal counsel to incorporate the most up-to-date advice surrounding AI. Policies should include information about copyright information, disclaimer language for any AI-generated material being used, and guidance on the best AI tools for staff to use. Association AI policies should make sure that any images being used meet current copyright standards. Images generated by an AI tool will not have copyright protections; however, AI tools may generate images that closely mirror copyrighted images, so it is important to ensure that AI-generated images are not a reproduction of copyrighted images. Staff should always double-check AI-generated images to ensure no copyright infringement exists. While no primary method to do this exists, doing a reverse search on the image by dragging and dropping the image into a search engine, should be sufficient to see if the AI-generated image contains a copyright. A disclaimer should be included for work product that includes an image generated by an AI tool. The language in the disclaimer should explain that the image was generated using an AI tool and is not the original work product of the association or author. It is important that associations provide their staff with clear instructions about which AI programs to use. Some programs may not provide as many protections as others, so it is important to work with IT and legal to ensure that any programs comply with the association and author’s needs and requirements.

Starting the Conversation

If your association does not have existing policies, or they are no longer comprehensive, now is the time to start a conversation. Associations should begin by consulting with staff, members, IT and legal to help uncover specific focus areas. Remember that taking the time to thoughtfully create, update and share policies can save the association from future headaches and costs that result from infringement claims and investigations. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not reflect the views or positions of their employers. The information provided in this article does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials are for general informational purposes only. Information in this article may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information.

Katelyn Riley

Katelyn Riley is the communications director at the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. She volunteers as a member of ASAE’s Young Professionals Advisory Committee.

Naema Mallick

Naema Mallick is an assistant general counsel at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. She volunteers as a member of ASAE’s Young Professionals Advisory Committee.