12 Most Picture Perfect Ways To Ensure You’re Legally Using Online Photos

12 Most Picture Perfect Ways To Ensure You’re Legally Using Online Photos

For generations, a picture was worth a thousand words. Now, in the social network age, a picture is worth a few hundred likes, some +1’s, a handfull of retweets, stumbles, tumbles, pins, and shares of all sorts. Oh, and those original thousand words.

Using images in our online work is crucial. It’s a visual medium and how better to tell your story or draw in your audience than with a compelling photo? But while some may be flattered you’re using a photo they took or image they created, most are not. Besides all the SEO and search-engine ranking reasons, using someone else’s work without their permission is not only wrong but also may be illegal.

US Copyright laws may be years behind the fast-paced world of social media and blogs, but they still control how a copyrighted work can be used. And while there are aspects of Copyright law that have “gone digital,” the Digital Millennium Copyright Act doesn’t provide anything new when it comes to explaining how to properly use another person’s photos or images online. And because most people won’t read the law and even those who do may not understand exactly what it means, I offer you these to help you:

1. Did you take the photo or create the graphic?

If you took the photo or created the graphic and are not subject to a Work For Hire agreement, then you likely own the copyright and can do whatever you wish. There may be other exceptions, but the general rule is if you make it, you own it.

2. Plagiarism and copyright infringement are not the same

While it is difficult to detect visual plagiarism, when it does occur it’s not a legal problem. Plagiarism is an ethical concern that may have other elements of intellectual property theft tied with it. Copyright infringement, on the other hand, is illegal and carries with it potentially significant consequences. Plagiarism can be avoided by providing attribution and giving credit, copyright infringement can not.

3. Attribution does not make it right

Taking another person’s image or graphic and giving them a “shout out,” linkback, or any other type of attribution does not negate copyright infringement. Common sense may say that an artist wants exposure for their work, but we’re talking about the law here and common sense doesn’t always parallel. Copyright law gives the copyright holder the right to decide where their work is published and maybe they don’t want their work on your site, in your book, included in your newsletter or distributed to your social media network. It’s not for us to question why they wouldn’t want “exposure.”

4. Ask and you may receive

That same person who decides to send a DMCA Takedown Notice may have said yes if asked. Most people are rational and will agree to let their image or graphic be used. But they want the decision to be theirs and they want to allow it on their terms. Not everyone will say yes and we all have our reasons why we wouldn’t, but most will. And if they say no, that’s OK too because then you just move on and won’t have to worry about your site going down because of a DMCA takedown.

5. Avoid all problems and use public domain images

Sounds simple, but most people don’t even realize that there are tens of millions of high-quality graphics and photos available for the taking. I know you’re thinking I’m making this up, but I’m here to tell you that not all free images are low-quality, random pictures of wildebeests or clowns. There are many websites that curate images that are in the public domain and allow users to upload images they’re willing to put into the public domain. With public domain images you’re free to use them in any way and in most cases you don’t have to provide attribution. Check the terms of the site to determine if attribution is required and, if so, follow the requested format.

6. Understand the Creative Commons license you use

There are several photo-sharing sites where users can allow others to download and use images under one of the several Creative Commons licenses, all of which require attribution. Many people are happy to share their photos. But again, they get to decide the rules. Also realize that the owner may change the license after you use the image and may that trigger a request for removal. It is important to know that a Creative Commons license is non-revocable, although explaining that to someone who didn’t read the license they assigned to their image could be a waste of time.

7. Different uses come with different obligations

It may be acceptable to use an image, as is, on your blog, but you may not have the right to use that same image in a paid newsletter, book, video or other type of work. Unless the image is in the public domain or you are the copyright holder, you have to consider the use(s) granted by the copyright holder or license. A copyright holder may be agreeable to certain uses but not to others.

8. Fair Use likely doesn’t mean what you think it means

Fair Use is a doctrine in Copyright law that basically says you’re allowed to infringe someone’s copyright and they can’t demand anything from you. It may sound simple, but it’s one of the most complex parts of Copyright law. So complex that there are very few cases to look to for guidance. Copyright Fair Use for online images does exist, just not in the way most people believe it does.

9. Assume every image you find online is copyrighted

The excuse that the image didn’t have a watermark or a “©” to show it was copyrighted doesn’t work. Most works first published after March 1, 1989 do not require a copyright notice, which is great given the speed we can upload photos at today. At the same time, this lack of copyright notice has some people believing that there are no restrictions to its use. Indeed, every one of those selfies with duck lips on Instagram is subject to copyright, as is that photo of a flower (or cloudscape, animal, cocktail, etc.) that would go great on your blog. Copyright laws are often blurred with the sharing mechanisms on many of the social networking sites. However, as soon as an image is taken from one platform and used on another, there may be problems. And while search engines are doing their best to provide copyright notice information if it applies, please don’t assume that if it’s not there in your search that there is none.

10. Your website, your liability

One of the most common explanations I hear when someone gets a “cease and desist” or a DMCA takedown for an image used in their website design is that they didn’t choose that image. “It’s the designer’s fault!” is not a defense to copyright infringement. Not all web designers understand copyright laws, but that won’t relieve you from liability if a copyrighted image is used without permission or license. Few design agreements address this issue, which leaves the site owner legally responsible for copyright violations. While a designer may not be willing to modify their contract, it’s worth asking (1) if they will, (2) where do they source images, and (3) if the image they use is found to violate a copyright and you’re required to pay, will they indemnify you.

11. Making changes to a copyrighted image doesn’t make it yours

If you don’t have the copyright in an image, changing it so it looks different doesn’t relieve you from potential liability. You can’t create a new work and call it yours if you don’t own the underlying copyright. Adding a favorite quote or other text to an image doesn’t negate the underlying copyright. Using one of the many photo editing software products to change the image to something that suits your particular use will not create a new copyright for you. We see this a lot, especially on the many social networks we belong to.

12. Just because other people do it doesn’t make it right

Unfortunately, Copyright law doesn’t care if “big name person” appears to be getting away with copyright infringement while “the little guy” isn’t. Because copyright is very personal, a great deal of enforcement rests with the copyright holder. As we all know, there are some people online who just don’t care that laws exist or somehow believe the laws don’t apply to them. It’s unfortunate and unfair, but the reality is that copyright law is not equally applied across the Internet. Having the ability to do something doesn’t mean it should be done.

Copyright law is very complex but you don’t have to be a lawyer to understand the basics. When it comes to using images online, trust your instinct. If there’s any tinge of uneasiness then reconsider or do some research. In many ways, copyright follows the golden rule.

What has been your experience with using images online?

Featured image courtesy of stock_xchng.

Photo illustration work: Paul Biedermann, re:DESIGN

Sara Hawkins

http://sarafhawkins.com

Sara Hawkins is the creator of a Blog Law series to help other bloggers, entrepreneurs and online professionals gain legal confidence. Her goal is to make the law understandable and approachable without being overwhelming.

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137 comments
Cris
Cris

Hi sarah. I found two pictures of paintings of flowers i would love to print enlargements of to hang in my living room my question is it illegal to screenshot them and then just have them print out larger.. The paintings where sold out years ago.

rabin
rabin

Hi Sarah or anyone,

Please kindly assist me. I am currently using interior images found online and line drawing them in photoshop. I have made some changes to the line drawings but will I face copyright issues this way? The end line art will be included in a client's brochure.
Thank you for your kind assist! 

Maria
Maria

Hi Sarah,

Thank you for that clear explanation. I have a question about images of public buildings. I understand that in most cases I'm legally allowed to take pictures of public buildings and publish them online. However, am I therefore allowed to publish pictures that someone else took of a public building?


Thanks,

Maria

MunibTurkanovic
MunibTurkanovic

Broken down really wel.. Thanks God i do not have to search any further. Great Job.

louwudo
louwudo

Hi Sara.  I recently started developing websites as a freelancer.  Everything I read above makes so much more sense now!  Thanks for explaining in such depth and detail.  I want to ask you, and everyone reading this... I want some good suggestions on free public domain image websites.  I found a few but I don't want to miss out on something I might have missed or not know off.  Kind regards to you and everyone else.

Carol McKinley
Carol McKinley

Sarah if I copy and use a Photo shopped picture that is not copyrighted from facebook on twitter, now mind you the photo shopped picture is not copyrighted can I still use this picture without being told to take it down, also your article is awesome, I myself own 14 copyrights of written work.


Sincerely,

Carol

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@Carol McKinley Thank you for your kind words about my article. With regard to works that are not subject to copyright or or in the public domain, the author/creator can submit a DMCA Takedown Notice but there are serious legal concerns to doing so if they know, in fact, that the image is not covered by copyright.

If a public domain work is used and someone claiming copyright ownership submits a DMCA Takedown, the user of the public domain image can filed a Counter Notification with the grounds from countering why the work should be restored.

Further, if the Takedown Request, which, like the Counter Notification, is submitted under penalty of perjury, is kowingly submitted under false pretenses the DMCA provides for penalties. That, of course, would require pursing legal action.

Hope this helps!

nicnic1
nicnic1

Hi......my website girl used a picture that belong to someone if we have a copyright disclosure on our website stating that all pictures don't belong to us and if the owner finds it we can either give him credit or remove are we safe?  or are we liable if someone want to come after us?

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@nicnic1  a copyright disclosure will not protect you from a DMCA takedown notice request or from an infringement suit. Further, a copyright disclosure is not a valid defense to copyright infringement.

MuralForm
MuralForm

Hello Great article I was wondering , If I use  photograph to create a mural is that copyright infringement. I'm guessing it is?

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@MuralForm Most likely it would fall under copyright infringement due to a copyright-holder having the exclusive right to create derivative works.

Marcel D
Marcel D

I have read some of the questions here, and I didn't find something suitable for my case/issue: It's quite simple, I draw portraits to people, and recently, I came across someone on facebook, and I decided to make this person a portrait, I did try to ask for permission first, but the person was being ignorant, but I decided to make the portrait anyway, once it was finished, I posted the drawing on my facebook page, and tagged the person I had drawn the picture of, said person immediately got offended and asked me to remove the drawing, I refused, and that was pretty much it. Now the question is, should I be worried?
PS. This person's photo was posted with "Public" settings, as I am not connected with her on facebook yet I could acquire the photo, and as far as I know everything that's posted publicly is free content, from what I read, I'm still not sure about it :/
Well there's my "issue", looking forward for an answer, thank you.

dbwhitted
dbwhitted

What I'm doing as a free service, is I dedicate my time creating images for my church by adding text that indicate services, events, & activities, these images would be used for uploading to Facebook as announcements. These events & activities are ALL free & open to the public as free, there's no money produced from them, nor are they printed or published...Example shown below is what I'd find, add date, time, & location; then post to church FB page...Legal or not?

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@dbwhitted Unfortunately I'm not in a position, thorough these comments, to say whether what you are doing is or is not legal. Any time copyrighted images belonging to another person are used without their permission, copyright law would classify that an infringement. If there is an exception, such as Fair Use, that infringement would be permitted. However, Fair Use is a legal term and thus must meet the criteria the court set out for Fair Use. 


If the alleged infringing party is a non-profit, doesn't make make, doesn't charge, etc. is not wholly relevant to the question of whether or not there is actionable infringement.


If you are concerned you may want to find sources whereby you know that the image is available to use.



Paul
Paul

Hi Sara


I'm planning on doing a review of a videogame on my website, would I be ok to take screenshots of the game playing on my PC and use these, or would this be a no, no, thanks, Paul

geehrkw
geehrkw

hi, im new to blogging and wanted to use images from other sites. were already asking blog admins for permission and just waiting for answers atm. so thing is, images will be used for reference once permission granted and in the future, if the blog creates money via ads, will there be any violation regarding copyright and fairuse policy? and how bout other retailer sites such as branded companies? I also want to featuring their product and using their images within their sites? any suggestions?

dhananjays
dhananjays

if i found single image on much websites so where i contact to use permission - or if any image use on more websites so this is free for use ??

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@dhananjays the use of an image on multiple websites is not an indication that it's free to use. Often images are used extensively without the copyright holder being able to have them taken down. Or perhaps it is a licensed image. You can try using TinEye or Google Image Search to find the creator of the image. Without permission, though, you'll have to determine if the risk is worth using it.

ankit7477
ankit7477

Can you provide a list of places from where we can get free to use images?

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@ankit7477 There are many sources of free images. Your best bet would be to do a search because there are just too many options. Morguefile is a good option as those are public domain, Flickr Creative Commons is popular but you need to know how to read and understand the license offered, PicJumbo is a free option. There really are so many that a search will give you many options.

PrateekAgarwal
PrateekAgarwal

Thanks a lot for sharing the info. I was using images from Google unaware of the copyright thing and was penalized. So not very cautious.

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@PrateekAgarwal Glad you know now not to use images secured from Google. There are many great sources that will allow you to use quality images.

shutterbug
shutterbug

Hi.  How can I find the name and contact information for photo images I see online?

shutterbug
shutterbug

I mean the name of the photographer.


Brenna
Brenna

Great info, thanks! Very succinct and just what I was looking for!


Question runtastic
Question runtastic

Can I copy someone's pic from runtastic and put it on my twitter or fb page?

Liz
Liz

While my coworjer was out of work for 3 months I sent her a daily humor to her Facebook page. I would Google a pictures, select one, put a humorous comment and post it. I was thinking of making a book with all the daily humors in it. But after ready the above not sure if I can.

sivan
sivan

Hi Sara,


I want to open a website of reviews on shows and movies and also to write there some information about different actresses where can I get legal photos to use on my website ?


Thank you for your help

ce
ce

hi sara

received this from lcs or an image that was inserted on website wht re our options?

This letter is being sent to you by License Compliance Services, Inc. ("LCS"), a company that specializes in assisting copyright holders with the management and protection of their content. Science Photo Library Ltd. has mandated LCS to handle the matter of your online use of Science Photo Library Ltd.'s imagery. In that regard, we request your attention to the following important information.

Using imagery of Science Photo Library Ltd. without a valid license is considered copyright infringement and entitles Science Photo Library Ltd. to seek compensation for infringing uses (Copyright Act, Title 17, United States Code).

K S
K S

Hello Sara, 

I am an aspiring photographer, one of the ways I obtain pictures is by screen capturing a video or livestream of a concert i can not attend in person. I source the video, producers, artists, and anyone correlated to the video or livestream itself. I do not make any profit off of these types of photos and merely take the photos to share with others. By doing this am I infringing on any laws?

Sherif
Sherif

Hello Sara. Im an artist and I see alot of other artists' website that have portraits of celebrities, comic book characters, movie characters, and video game characters. They draw it on youtube and also contain many of these (what I would assume are copyrighted images) on their site. My question is this: Can i draw these same images, or celebrities and put them on my website? The reason why I ask is because I highly doubt that these people got permission to draw all of these images and so I was wondering if drawing them would be a problem WITHOUT SELLING IT?

I know selling it would be a big problem, but I was just wondering about drawing it and placing it on my website ONLY.

MichaelCross2
MichaelCross2

Hello. If I take a picture of an artwork in the Vatican museum then can I use that on my blog or as a YouTube thumbnail picture?

Chase
Chase

Sara, let me get this straight.  If I take a photograph and post it on the web in some manner, then how does it automatically become a copyrighted photo ?  Is there not something I have to do to say it's mine to protect it?

julie graham
julie graham

Hi Sarah,

I took photo's of many concerts I have been to . I am not a professional or do not own a business yet.

What are copyright laws regarding putting the photo that I took on a Icing sheet and selling it? I would need to ask permission ? .

Kind Regards Julie.

Kristenas
Kristenas

Hi, I'm putting together a dance show and would like to use old dance photos of Fred Astire and other different old vintage type photos for my show, put to music where a singer is singing and have a slide show of various dance pictures from old shows and things. Is this legal? Would love any advice. Thank you, kristena

crystalclear 2425
crystalclear 2425

I copied a picture from his dads page on Facebook an he saw an told me to take it down or he will get a lawyer...now the picture was of my son but he has full custody of him an does not let me see him cuz he is very mean..can he legally have his lawyer have me take the pictures of my son down?

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@crystalclear 2425 From a copyright standpoint whomever owns the copyright has the exclusive right to share/copy the photo, subject, of course, to statutory limitations. You did not indicate that it was shared in some manner. Due to licenses granted through the Facebook TOS, a person who shares using the platform functionality is not engaging in copyright infringement. You do not indicate how the image was shared that forced the takedown request, so it's unclear what, if any, liability may exist.


In addition, there appear to be other legal issues that may affect this situation beyond copyright.

crystalclear 2425
crystalclear 2425

Sarah f Hawkins. the picture was shared to my Facebook page as a post..just said pic of my son Jake

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@crystalclear 2425 How did you acquire the photo? Just because it's a picture of your son doesn't mean you have the legal rights to share the image. 

Many people mistakenly save images from another person's Facebook feed thinking they can share them because they or their children are in the photos. Copyright law does not permit that and the copyright holder has the right to request the image be removed. 


Facebook TOS grants a license to allow the share of images (for which the person who uploads the work has the rights to do so) so long as the "share" button on Facebook is used. 

Unfortunately, I am unable to offer you specific legal advice regarding your legal rights with regard to this situation. Information in this article and all comments is for informational purposes only.

DJ
DJ

Hi. Your post is very helpful. I would like to know about using screen captures from embeddable YouTube videos for reviews, comments and discussions for TV shows. Does it constitute fair use? I intend to use one screen capture per 200-300 words with a link back to the video.

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@DJ Some screen captures may be protected under Fair Use. However, there is no blanket rule so it's difficult to say without a proper legal analysis.

Firdaus
Firdaus

Hi Sara,


This is a wonderfully informative article.

I am starting a blog and would like to use images from online shopping websites like Asos, Forever21 etc in my posts, with links to them. Is it okay to use them or does that violate any laws?


Thanks

Firdaus

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@Firdaus for most stores, if you are sharing an image from their site and specifically talking about that item and discussing buy/no buy options the store will not undertake infringement action. How the image is used is key, and it's something you'll have to examine with regard to Fair Use and if you think your use would meet the legal criteria. Technically, any unauthorized use of a copyrighted work is infringement. However, Fair Use recognizes that there are exceptions.

millaa
millaa

Hi, I'd like to use some hotel images from various websites online for my photographer as a guidelines references. Am I allowed to do so even if I put a disclaimer "These images are Copyright property of the original owner. They are strictly for reference purposes only" in my pdf guidelines?

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@millaa While there is no specific part of the law that speaks to allowing photos to be shared in this manner, courts do have common sense and would likely see a private use such as a client sharing hotel photos with their private photographer to get ideas for location. It's best to use photos that the hotels provide for press purposes rather than photos belonging to private individuals.

Lenulka
Lenulka

Hi Sara, I found a picture I like and I would like to find out if I could get the permission to use it but I have no idea how to find the owner. Is there a way to find out that you can share with me, please?


Thank you


Lenka

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@Lenulka You can try using the reverse image search feature of Google or using Tin Eye reverse image search. While neither is perfect, either may lead you to the copyright holder.

Curiousaboutlaws
Curiousaboutlaws

Hello Sara,

Recently I babysat for a friend's child. I took a photo of myself holding the child, and uploaded it on instagram. A mutual friend of ours saw the photo of another mutual friend. That friend asked me to call her and she said that I don't think you should post photo's of another child's picture. I know it can be a taboo for certain cultures, but the picture does not show the baby's face. Just the back of his head and back. I thought this would be fine, because it is my instagram, my page, and I'm not endagering the child in anyway... Would this still be legal or not?  

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@Curiousaboutlaws If you took the photo, copyright law would say you can do with it as you choose. However, as you found out, when it comes to photos of other people's children there are additional societal norms. In addition, there are laws about posting photos of people taken in private. Photos taken in places where someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy can violate their privacy rights. Depending on the state, the laws may or may not have any real effect. For children, though, courts are often more likely to protect their privacy. It doesn't need to be an image of a face either. So long as the minor is identifiable, privacy laws may protect the dissemination of their image. It has nothing to do with depicting endangerment of the child or that it's your photo or your Instagram. Many parents are highly protective of the digital footprint that's being established for their child.

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