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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104 comments
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.

KimberlyWestrope
KimberlyWestrope

We are a machine shop that makes a partial product for our customers (parts that go in to an assembly or other complete product). I have taken some pictures of parts we machined to use in our brochure and on our website. Do I need to get permission from the customers to use these pictures?

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@KimberlyWestrope Since you are making these parts for a customer, it's not so much a copyright issue that you need to be concerned with. You should examine the contractual relationship with this customer, if there is one, to determine what privacy and confidentiality rights are included. Trade secrets are highly protected and a company may not want their part available for competitors to see. Definitely do more research on this issue.

Sandy Pony
Sandy Pony

Hi Sara,


Thank you for your article, I do learn a lot.

There is one thing I'd like to learn more.

I'm writing a book which may need some politicians' photos. May I use photos from news website like ABC, BBC, or CNN.These site allow viewers to share news and photos on Facebook and Twitter. Does it mean I can use them?

Could you please kindly give me some advice?

Thank You in advance.

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

The sharing feature is not a license to use the work outside of their site. Sharing is a site feature that keeps the work on their site but integrates it with the social network platform.

A share functionality is not permission to share, use, take, or otherwise obtain any rights to a work for use beyond that "click" which integrates with an API.

The news sites license likely license these images from third-party photographers or agencies. Very few news sites own the copyright to the images on their site. Your use may or may not be Fair Use, so you would need to explore that separately. In general, though, the images are not free for the taking.

Chris
Chris

Hi. I saw a photo and what I did was I went to the Twitter account of the owner of the photo, asked the owner if I can edit it and use it for public use. If the owner says yes then is there anything else I have to do? Please email me at chrislox64@gmail.com

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@Chris If a copyright holder grants you permission, and you have that permission in writing, then consider yourself as having permission to do what the copyright holder permitted. A copyright license needs to be in writing but it doesn't have to be some 20-page lawyer-drafted behemoth to be valid. Of course, it's best to have a more complete license rather than a few tweets. But, courts have used electronic conversations (not a tweet, yet!) to establish license rights.


While your discussion may not have mentioned providing attribution, always provide attribution to the original copyrightholder (1) as a courtesy and (2) to avoid a charge of plagiarism.

Mair_iii
Mair_iii

Hello,

How Can i use celebrities' pictures on my private blog without being copyrighted?

My blog is private but without any kind of ad;

If I take a pic from Google without rename it or change the credit and refer from where I took it, namely the source, am I covered with the copyright of this pic?

Please help me to find a legal way to use pics without paying an agency as I do not make any money from my blog.

Thank you

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@Mair_iii 

First, Credit would be given to the person who took the image not the website where you found the image. It also doesn't matter what you call the file. If it's one from an agency such as Getty, they have metadata coded in and have bots to search it. Second, celebrity images present unique circumstances because the celebrity is not likely to be the copyright holder and yet, the celebrity has owns the right to publicity with regard to their likeness.


Whether you make money on your blog is not necessarily a relevant question when it comes to copyright infringement. As such, when examining Fair Use, it's a consideration but it's just one criteria.


As neither I nor any other lawyer can provide you with legal advice, you would need to seek counsel to obtain a more definitive determination regarding your site.

PattyS
PattyS

I saw an image on laidget.com.  It says at the very bottom of the site:  "Any content, trademark/s, or other material that may be found on the Laidget website that is not Laidget’s property remains the copyright of its respective owner/s. In no way does Laidget claim ownership or responsibility for such items, and you should seek legal consent for any use of such materials from its owner.Index Wallpaper: home interior #"

The disclaimer here alerts me that I may need to pay someone to use the image.  However, I don't know how to find out who I need to pay.  

Please advise.

thanks!


chelsea1955
chelsea1955

Is there an internet site that can be used to see if images posted by one group may be property of another entity? I understand there are sites to check on copyrighted names and trademarks, but do not know about images. Thank you.

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@chelsea1955 unfortunately there is no clearinghouse to check who owns the copyright on an image. Google Image Search and TinEye are both good search engines to see what other sites may have the same image posted. Often by looking at dates and finding the original posting you can find the copyright holder or information about the image creator. Hope this helps.

ArmaunRouhi
ArmaunRouhi

Hello,

I manage a student run medical publication at my high school. We distribute copies to students at our school free of charge with the purpose of educating them about the medical field that is covered in that specific issue (Neurology, Cardiology, etc.). However, for our upcoming issue on Neurology, we require high quality, scientific images of neurons, brains, and neural cells, among many other items. Because we are affiliated with our high school, have a solely educational purpose, and do not charge readers for a copy of our publication, would fair use apply to our organization regarding these images?
Thank you.

OSC Center
OSC Center

We take pictures for our Facebook page and our website. No commercials or anything, we have a $100 advertising budget (50 for paper and 50 for ink, usually expected to last a couple months) so we just post them on our website. Recently (an employee of ours) someone complained and demanded we take off her pic from the website. 


I have thought about two possible solutions.


1. Just have a photo video etc release waiver be attached on the back of all membership forms 


2. Post a sign on all doors that "By walking into the Swim Center you are giving us permission to photograph you and place it on our website and or facebook page.  


I really feel like the second is the better choice but is this legal?? 

dani b13
dani b13

For design purposes does this mean if you find an image and draw from it or create a piece based on that image that you need the original makers permission? The original image needs to be your own theres no give and take here, you cant develop or rework something?

Thanks

Danielle

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@dani b13 Ideas aren't protect and getting an idea from something then creating your own does not require obtaining permission. Many authors/photographers see a work and are inspired to create something of their own.

Reworking an existing work may have implications under the Derivative Works portion of US Copyright law.

Carly
Carly

HI sara

I write a blog and like to use images of quotes. How would these be 'owned' as such? Is there a way I can produce my own 'quote images'? Or can I photograph a quote or page form a book and use this if I took the picture myself. Very confused over what we can do. Thanks Carly

Dean the Burnout
Dean the Burnout

Hi, Sara. A quick question: To what extent does the use of public domain images and public domain films overlap? The reason for my asking is that I entertain the notion of generating memes or posting images to my magazine's website that are in the style of the Teevee Jeebies Shel Silverstein produced for Playboy back in the sixties. Example: "Angel and the Bad Man" (1946) is in public domain. Say I would like to use a still image of John Wayne and Jane Russell from the film and append a humorous quote beneath or within it (thereby bringing in the possible umbrella of satire, as well...?). Am I covered?  

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@Dean the Burnout Public domain means that there is no copyright attached. This classification applies to images and films equally. With regard to any work that includes a likeness of a person (living or dead) there is an other layer to consider and that is what, if any, rights of publicity may also apply.

It's the right of publicity that many celebrities/famous people/public figures seek compensation for since they likely don't own the copyright to the visual work in which they are featured.

Many celebrities create companies to manage request to use their likeness. Even back in "the golden years" celebrities would create a company and assign the rights so that after they died their family could have some control over their likeness. Even without the benefit of having created a company, there are several states (California in particular) that created laws to preserve an estate's ability to own or control a dead celebrity's right of publicity.

As this is not the dispensation of legal advice, you may want to consult with an attorney who practices in this area to properly evaluate your plan.


Chris
Chris

Thank you for the post - it was very informative. It does however bring up a question. If someone owns (for example) a food blog where they take photos of their own recipes, then someone else posts a link to the article using Facebook, is this legal? Facebook is technically storing photos that are copyright locally on its website for others to see. Thanks again! - Chris

Juliya
Juliya

Dear Sara, 

We want to publish photos of famous photographers both living and those that are not and write a brief story about each of them. 

Can we post these photos adding a line below them saying (c)? Or we shall find someone who owns these photos and ask for their approval?

Please, advise.

Best wishes,

Juliya 

Dave
Dave

Hello Sara - Great article and a link to my favourite site: Morguefile.

Can I ask about public domain images? 

We use them and they imply product endorsement eg. a photo of a young person writing next to text about a school survey. 

OK or not?

BW

Dave

tgo8222
tgo8222

Hi sara

If i take a phto of a live sport on the tv using my camera does that image belong to me or is that copyright

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@tgo8222 Most TV broadcasts are shows subject to copyright. If you take a photo of the TV the photo belongs to you but you may be limited with what you do with it due to copyright laws. Taking a photo of a copyrighted work does not grant you a copyright in the underlying work.

RTelleen
RTelleen

If I purchase images for a PowerPoint presentation, and then make that presentation available to others on-line is that ok?  The document is not locked.

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@RTelleen It depends on what license came with the image(s) purchased and to whom and how the deck is made available to others. It's definitely very fact specific.

Phil
Phil

Hello Sara,


Great article. My son took some pictures of an abandoned house and posted them to his personal website. Another individual has sent him a DCMA indicating that my son has copied his pictures and therefore infringed on his copyright of the photos that he took. The pictures that my son took are nothing like the ones the other individual took. The only similarity is that they are of the same location. The other individual is trying to say that he has a copyright on the location and therefore his photos are infringed upon. To me this is ridiculous. It's like saying that a particular individual has a copyright on the Grand Canyon and you can't take pictures of it. Again, his pictures, which my son did not even know about were never copied or posted to any website in the public domain. My son took his own pictures. I believe that it falls under point #1. Does this fall under copyright infringement in any way.

Sara F. Hawkins
Sara F. Hawkins

@Phil Buildings may be subject to copyright and can limit what is done with photos taken of those buildings. However, let's assume the building is not copyrighted. Two people can set up a camera on a tripod in the exact same location with the exact same lighting and produce virtually the same image and each person would independently obtain a copyright in their work.

Using the Grand Canyon as an example doesn't work because there is no copyright in nature. However, because a building may be subject to copyright that would be the copyright holder that could raise issue on certain uses of images taken.

One does not obtain copyright on a location simply by photographing it.

RobynsWorld
RobynsWorld

Sara do you have, or know of, a post that walks folks through what all the creative commons rules are? On the creative commons page I am just simply confused by it all. I need a Creative Commons for Dummies on how to actually use those images that say I can and what information to include with it, etc. 

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