Ever thought about the connection between a T-shirt with Rihanna’s face on it and the photographs on your website? You should, because the tricky issue of image rights could possibly trip you up just as it did Top Shop.

Last year, the pop star won a court case in the UK against the high street fashion chain. Top Shop had the approval of the photographer who took the image to use it on its tops, but not Rihanna herself. She sued Top Shop’s owner Arcadia and won.

The legal wrangling between a music superstar and a global fashion business might seem irrelevant to your small firm, but it isn’t. That’s because the dispute boils down to the issue of who owned the image. That question affects every firm, large or small, that uses pictures as part of its business.

Let’s take a couple of example scenarios. First, you’ve created a fresh, new website for your start-up company. You’ve got a great name, the design is stunning and the words really sum up your new business. You’ve found a couple of great pictures that would finish the site perfectly, so you decide to download them from the Internet and use them.

Or you’re a consultant who’s been asked to give a speech at an industry seminar. It’s a big opportunity for you, as you’ve only recently gone out on your own and this conference is the main networking event for your industry. You decide that using a couple of really memorable pictures would be a great way of illustrating your speech and so you go online and start trawling for images.

The problem is that in both cases you might inadvertently infringe someone’s copyright by downloading their pictures.

Just because an image is widely available on the web, that doesn’t mean it’s somehow public property and therefore free to use. It’s likely that someone will own it, and that person or company will want to be paid in return for you using it.

When you use an image from the Internet, it’s important to make sure that you know whether or not you must pay to use it and that you get the owner’s permission before doing so. Otherwise you might end up in court.

If you think you’ll try to get away with it because you’re too small to be noticed, then you should think again. Picture agencies have sophisticated software that can detect whether their images are being downloaded without their consent.

But accidents do happen and it’s easy for firms to be genuinely unaware they broke the law. This could be as simple as forgetting to check who owns the image or not checking the contract’s small print on how or where it could be used even after purchasing the image.

In these cases, a good professional indemnity insurance policy is very handy, because it could pay for your small firm’s legal expenses and settlement costs.

So now matter how good that image looks for your business, it never hurts to think twice before hitting the copy button on Google.