Copyright law is one of those topics that’s both ridiculously simple and the most complicated thing in the world. Unfortunately, there are people working online who think it’s ok to copy an image from Google and upload it to their website. “But I added credit, so it’s ok, right?” Wrong!

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you absolutely cannot just take whichever images you like  from Google and use them however you desire, regardless of the credit you added or didn’t as the case may be. Luckily, there are a few basic principles you can follow to ensure you are abiding by the rules as best you can, but like most things, there are some grey areas to watch out for.

 

Why did I write this guide?

Visual content is growing at such a rapid rate that since the 1.8 billion images revealed to be uploaded in 2014, 65,972 photos were posted to Instagram per minute in 2016, which means Instagram uploads alone far surpasses the entire internet image upload from the two years previous. An estimated 1.2 trillion new photos will be taken in 2017, with the number of images uploaded online being much greater than that amount. Utilising imagery in content, on landing pages, in client communications, and on social media provides a significant opportunity for businesses of any size.

I created this guide to help anyone working online learn the basics of image copyright law, what to do about grey areas, where to find additional information and to provide an extensive list of resources to help anyone avoid any tricky situations with the law.

Important Note: The guidelines in this post are based on copyright law for the use of images and photography online in the UK, and the law may differ per country. Although the main principals are mostly the same, you may want to double check certain grey areas for your own country/regional laws. It is also not a replacement for actual legal advice and should you be in a situation where you’ve used an image you shouldn’t have, or someone has used one of your images without permission, please seek professional legal advice. This post is for reference only.

 

Who is this guide for?

This guide is primarily for digital marketers or anyone who not only has their own website but works with client websites and collaborators’ websites, which could get any one of these people into trouble. However, it also makes a handy guide for bloggers, writers, designers, entrepreneurs, and anyone else who wants to use images online. If you happen to work in the legal industry, you might be interested in our article on SEO for law firms.

GUIDE CONTENTS

COPYRIGHT LAW BASICS
CASE STUDY: THE GREEN PEPPER
MOST COMMON COPYRIGHT QUESTIONS
WHERE TO FIND IMAGES ONLINE

Man in suit holding copyright symbol

COPYRIGHT LAW BASICS

AN INTRODUCTION TO COPYRIGHT LAW
COPYRIGHT OWNERSHIP & LENGTH
GETTING PERMISSION TO USE AN IMAGE
THE CONSEQUENCES OF INFRINGING COPYRIGHT
THREE LICENSES YOU SHOULD BE AWARE OF

AN INTRODUCTION TO COPYRIGHT LAW

Images of any kind, whether it be a photograph, an illustration, a painting, or a digital graphic, will usually be protected by copyright law as artistic works. This means that if someone wishes to use one of these images, for whatever reason, permission must be sought from the copyright owner.

Sometimes it can be as simple as reaching out to the person who took a photo, checking that they own the copyright, and asking if you can use it (explaining what you will be using it for). However, there are times when you don’t know who owns the copyright, or you have no way of contacting the owner. This guide should help you in these situations.

 

COPYRIGHT OWNERSHIP & LENGTH

The first owner of the copyright on an image will usually be the creator (the photographer, the painter, the designer). However, there are some situations where this is not always the case – also note that photos taken before 1989 may have different rules applied to them. It could also be the case that an image was created as an employee and in this situation, the employer would own the copyright to the image, not the creator. In some scenarios, the artistic director for a picture may own the copyright, even if they are not the direct creator because someone else clicked the camera. 

The creator of an image can choose who owns the copyright and how the licence works, they can also allow a person or organisation to licence the work on their behalf or transfer the copyright to someone else. Licensing in this sense means the permission to use an image for a given period, in return for payment and on certain conditions. An image can have multiple copyright owners when more than one creator was involved in making the image, in this instance permission must be sort from all owners. 

When an image is created in the UK, copyright ownership usually lasts until the end of the calendar year, 70 years following the creator’s death. For older images, it’s always best to source the original date of creation to get an idea if the copyright is still in play before spending time seeking the copyright owner. Images taken before the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 came about can be a little more complex.

Some unpublished works were granted perpetual copyright, but the 1988 act reduced the copyright of these works to 50 years from the implementation of the law. The legal change means any works not published before the 1st August 1989 and where the creator died before the 1st January 1969, are still in copyright until at least the 31st December 2039. This will be the case for many photographs created between 1 June 1957 and 1 August 1989.

 

GETTING PERMISSION TO USE AN IMAGE

Getting permission to use an image is not necessary if it is free from copyright or it has expired. Permission is also not usually required when using images for personal research or private study. However, if an image does not fall under these exceptions, permission must be granted by all copyright owners. Where there are multiple owners, there may sometimes be one entity who can give blanket permission, but other times it may need to be granted individually.

 

THE CONSEQUENCES OF INFRINGING COPYRIGHT

No individual has too small of a presence online to be immune to consequences when it comes to image copyright. There have been instances when owners of small blogs have used an image online, without permission, and two years later be hit with the consequences. As an individual entity, the outcome can be stressful, time-consuming, and extremely expensive. There are various courses of action when copyright infringement occurs. The most straightforward would be to ask the user of the image to buy a licence, also covering the costs of the use of the image up to that point, and no further action will be taken. The most drastic, but very real, consequence is that a legal case will be opened.

If this happens, the user will most likely end up paying for the use of the image, legal fees, and financial compensation to the copyright owner, all of which will probably far exceed the original cost of the licence to use the image. Should a commercial entity infringe copyright, criminal prosecution may also come into action, although this is rarer.

 

THREE LICENSES YOU SHOULD BE AWARE OF

Public Domain: Images in the public domain are free for anyone to use as they wish, this includes any photograph created by the US government and others. So any images created by NASA, for example, are copyright free. Do be careful with images labelled as public domain, because it may not be applicable for the country you’re in – be sure to check local copyright laws.

GNU Public Licence: A GNU Public Licence, or GPL, is a very extensive licence, but essentially means you are free to use and edit the image as you wish on the condition it is released on the same licence and the licence is mentioned. A GPL, therefore, may not be suitable for business blogs and websites but could be useful for many others.

Creative Commons: The Creative Commons licence is one of the most popular online and will usually be labelled as such or with a CC. Creators who wish to release their images under a CC licence can apply layers, which permits people to use the image on certain conditions: perhaps it requires credit, or it’s only for non-commercial use, it could also restrict editing. You can find detailed information on the CC licence layers here.

Red peppers in a bowl surrounded by green peppers

 

CASE STUDY: THE GREEN PEPPER

In February 2014, Chrystie, the owner of Living for Naptime, created a post about a green pepper coupon and included an image of a green pepper she found on Google. Eight months later, in October, Chrystie received an email from a lawyer which included a Cease & Desist and she promptly removed the image thinking that would be enough. She was wrong. The lawyer immediately responded requesting damages.

Upon checking the photographer’s website for the cost of the image, Chrystie discovered the cost of using the photo was $750. Unfortunately, the nightmare didn’t end there. Legal documents were received demanding $7,500 in damages! Upon securing an Intellectual Property attorney, Chrystie found herself paying the $7,500 in order to avoid a possible $50-$100k in taking the case to court. This ended up being a costly mistake which will not be made again.

A little research suggested the photographer was purposefully optimising his images for search to trap people who used them and then sue them. Whether this is the case or not, the person who uses the image would still be at fault, and that is why a little knowledge in copyright law and some vigilance online can save you £1000’s.

 

“If in doubt, don’t use it.”

 

Signpost silhouette on gradient pink sky

 

MOST COMMON COPYRIGHT QUESTIONS

CAN I USE MY OWN IMAGES ONLINE?
CAN I TAKE MY OWN PHOTO OF A COPYRIGHT WORK AND USE IT ONLINE?
WHO OWNS THE COPYRIGHT IN COMMISSIONED IMAGES?
CAN I RECREATE AN IMAGE I FOUND ONLINE?
WHAT ABOUT FAIR USE?
WHAT IF THERE’S NO © SYMBOL?
IMAGES FROM SOCIAL MEDIA ARE FREE FOR ALL THOUGH, RIGHT?

 

CAN I USE MY OWN IMAGES ONLINE?

In most cases, you can use any images you’ve created yourself online. However, there are a few instances you need to watch out for, most of which are outlined below.

 

If you take a photograph of a copyright image, your photograph itself could be infringing copyright and, therefore, you would need to seek permission from the copyright owner of the original works before sharing your image. If your photo has copyrighted works as a nonessential background element, such as a painting on the wall in a room, but the photo is of your friend, this is usually put down as incidental and is not an infringement of copyright, however, these cases should still be treated with caution.

Photos of buildings, sculptures, and other works in public spaces do not require permission, however, do be careful of copyrighted works on the sides of buildings as these may fall under infringement.

 

WHO OWNS THE COPYRIGHT IN COMMISSIONED IMAGES?

If you have created an image as part of your employment, you would need your employer’s permission to share the image. Any agreement of copyright transfers or granting of exclusive licences would also require permission from those people as they are now the owners, and if a non-disclosure agreement binds you, the same stands.

If a third party commissions a photographer, the photographer would be the first legal owner of the copyright unless otherwise agreed. However, the creator would require permission from the third party to share these images, which would be an additional licence.

 

CAN I RECREATE AN IMAGE I FOUND ONLINE?

Copying a substantial amount of work would be classed as infringement, even if it’s not the entirety. Some adaptations of images, however, are ok to use if they fall under parody, pastiche, or caricature.

 

WHAT ABOUT FAIR USE?

Fair use is not an excuse that holds up in court if someone uses an image on their website without permission. However, fair use is a legitimate term and can be applied in a few instances, such as for private study, for critique or review, or for caricature, parody, or pastiche. It’s always best to get permission regardless, but more information on Fair Use can be found here.

 

WHAT IF THERE’S NO © SYMBOL?

The © symbol does not have to be present for copyright to exist. In addition to this, purposefully removing copyright information from an image or metadata is unlawful.

 

IMAGES FROM SOCIAL MEDIA ARE FREE FOR ALL THOUGH, RIGHT?

Not exactly. Usually, it’s ok to share images on social media on that social media platform. However, as soon as you share these on your blog, you might be infringing copyright, this also works the other way around. If you take an image from a blog or website and add it to a social media platform when it is not your image, you could be infringing copyright.

The best course of action with social media is to read each platform’s terms and conditions to ensure you do not breach any rules. Many people share photos from Instagram on their website for example, but Instagram clearly states that the user owns images and so copyright must still be sought as usual from the owner of the copyright – even if the image is embedded and links back to the Instagram profile.

 

Camera on tripod overlooking mountain landscape

 

WHERE TO FIND IMAGES ONLINE

The majority of the pictures on these websites are licenced under the CC0 licence. This means you are free to use them however you wish, no attribution necessary. Do double check though, as website terms are changed from time to time and some images may require credit.

The remaining resources have been split into public domain images, paid images, and mixed licences. Sites listed under paid are those where the majority of images require payment, although there may be some free resources. There may also be some mixed licences on these sites. For mixed licence sites, you can usually search for images based on licence type. Using search functions makes it easier to find images under the Creative Commons licence.

That is an extensive list of websites for you to source images. However, there are many more sources out there. As a final caution, make sure to check the individual licences and terms on each website.

If you are unable to find what you’re looking for, it may be worthwhile creating your own image library. By hiring a photographer to create original, high-quality images, you can have a wealth of photos available for use at any time. There would be no copyright risks to worry about – as long as you arrange this with the photographer beforehand. This method will also help you to stand out without having the same images as everyone else online.

 

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Kayleigh Stubbs

Kayleigh Stubbs

With over eight years experience in media and communications and a love of writing, design and technology, Kayleigh looks after analytics and conversion rate optimisation for our clients.

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