Law and Etiquette for Using Photos Online

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Most SEO experts suggest using at least one photo in every blog post. From an aesthetic perspective it’s a good idea, especially when the photo has something to do with the content. Photos and images are especially important for food blogs. And, of course, there is that “A picture is worth a thousand words” adage.

I always thought everyone knew that copying and pasting photos found on the internet was a definite no-no given that nearly every image created in the last 30 years is still protected by copyright, whether here in the US or from another country extending such rights. Boy was I wrong! When I spoke at Blissdom, one of the questions I asked of the audience was how many people have had a photo stolen. Nearly every hand in the room went up. WOW! We’re talking about fifty-some people (probably more). I went on to ask how many people have used Google Images to find photos. Quite a few hands went up.

Today I want to discuss using photos found online. I will not talk about using images from a brand’s website. The focus is on those images and photos found by searching the internet and coming up with page after page of images that may be suitable for your needs.

What is Copyright? Copyright is protection created by the US Constitution that give virtually every author the exclusive right to use or reproduce their work. This is a federal law and therefore uniform across all states. And, as the US Government has signed on to a variety of international copyright agreements protection is essentially world-wide.

US Copyright is a protection that applies to original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium. “Original” means that an author produced a work by his or her own intellectual effort instead of copying or modifying it from an existing work. “Fixed in a tangible medium” means that the work is able to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated. Your blog is the necessary ‘tangible medium’. (17 USC 102)

Nearly every photo taken gives the author (the one who takes the photo) a protectable right to prevent others from using or reproducing that image. Of course there are exceptions, but generally, the photographer owns the copyright. This is actually very important to know should you ever hand your camera to someone else to take a photo. That’s a completely different discussion, but don’t get offended if you ask your photographer friend to use her camera and she says no.

How do I get a Copyright? Copyright is automatic upon creation of an original work of authorship. With regard to photography, with few exceptions, every image is accepted to be covered by copyright upon putting the photo onto a hard drive or similar device.

If the photo is only on your hard drive there really is no significant issue regarding unauthorized copying. It’s when you upload your photo to a photo sharing site, your website, your blog, Twitter, Facebook, or other social media platform when the potential for someone to use your image comes into play.

There is often a misconception that you have to ‘do something’ to get a copyright. That is not true. And no, you don’t have to mail yourself a copy (often referred to as the “poor man’s copyright”). The current version of the Copyright Act does not require any filings to obtain a copyright.

However, if you wish to purse an infringement lawsuit  you will first need to obtain a registration with the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress. (I will not discuss this process here, that’s for another day.)

Can I Use Photos or Images from the Internet? NO! Well, maybe. Possibly. As a general rule, just assume that if you find an image on the internet that it is covered by copyright. Do not just ‘right click/save’ and put it on your website or blog or other social media platform or even use it on print materials. If you can find the source of the image you can then determine if they grant a license, such as creative commons, or offer it in the public domain. If they do offer a license, either free or for a fee, comply with the license and follow their rules and you’re good to go. Just know what you must do.

NOTE: finding something on the internet DOES NOT mean it is in the public domain. “Public domain” is a term of art and refers to a legal rule that means a work is no longer covered by copyright.

Can I Give a Link Back and Use the Photo? Uh, NO! Often referred to as the ‘hat tip’ or ‘shout out’, many feel that if they give the photographer credit of some form then they’re good to go. WRONG! Of course you need to give credit if that is what the license requires, but then you actually have permission. Just telling people who took the photo will not protect you if the author did not give you permission to use the image.

There is a big misconception that people want you to share their photos with your friends, family, readers, etc. Not always true. And while the majority of photographers really won’t mind, there are many who do and many who will not hesitate to take down your site for using their images.

If I’ll Get Caught Maybe I Just Won’t Link Back Even worse! Now you’re claiming it as your own and that is sure to anger the photographer. If you don’t want to link or give credit, either take the photo yourself or find images that are in the pubic domain.

But the Photo Did Not have a Copyright Notice On It! Then, if you want to use the photo, that should alert you to do some extra work to find out who owns the image. Copyright laws do not require the author to include a copyright notice. Yes, having one makes it easier to find out to whom you need to go for licensing. However, the lack of a copyright notice does not mean it is in the public domain or yours for the taking.

Where Can I Find Quality Images I Can Legally Use? There are a number of stock photo sources that offer free or low cost options. The following is not a comprehensive list, just the ones I like to use. Read over the rules so you know exactly what type of attribution is required.

Stock.Xchng

Morgue File

Photo8

Flickr Creative Commons Group

User Beware! Many photographers are embedding their copyright information into the source code for the image, so even if you crop out copyright notices, crop the photo to a size you want, right click instead of download, take a screen cap, or other ways of saving understand that the author may still be able to track your posting of their image online. In addition, just like that game Six Degree of Kevin Bacon you never know who knows someone and you’d be surprises how protective people are of their photos.

Conclusion Before taking any photo off the internet, get permission! Whether it be via a free license such as creative commons, paying for the license through a stock photo site, or using images known to be in the public domain get permission to use the image. It doesn’t take a lot of time to find a quality image. It surely takes much less time than what you’d have to spend if you get a cease and desist or DMCA take down notice.

Disclosure: While I am a lawyer, I am not offering legal advice. Posts on legal matters are intended to provide legal information and do not create an attorney/client relationship.

 

 

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45 thoughts on “Law and Etiquette for Using Photos Online

    1. Sara Post author

      Lynn,

      Thank you for visiting and letting me know you find the information helpful. It’s my pleasure to share!

      Kindly,
      Sara

      Reply
  1. Sarah

    Thanks for the info! I’m confused about images of products and logos, though. If I wanted to use an image of, say, an Adidas logo on my blog, or an image of a gallon of Mobil 1 motor oil, how do I do that the “right” way?

    Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      Sarah,

      Often, using corporate logos or brand images will fall under the Fair Use Doctrine of copyright allowing others to use the image without repercussion. Fair Use is complex, however, images are often allowed for commentary, criticism, news reporting, and scholarly reports. I’m not certain the reason you would want to use the logos, but I’m assuming it is to demonstrate that that particular product is on sale or was used for a particular purpose.

      Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule. Many will immediately say that the use of the image to show that the product is on sale is covered by fair use, but that’s not how the law reads. And because Fair Use is determined by a court and not a preset laundry list of criteria it makes it that much more challenging.

      Will a brand come after you because you used a picture of their product to show it was on sale? Probably not. What if disparaging remarks were made? Maybe.

      Many bloggers take brand images and use them on their site. Is it legal? Probably not. But will the brand come after them? Most likely not, but you never know. If the brand does, at least there is an opportunity to engage in some dialogue. The reality is that brands won’t get back to bloggers for every demand to use an image, it’s just not feasible. But that doesn’t mean they relinquish their intellectual property rights either.

      Hope this helps. If you need further clarification, feel free to post your questions. Thank you for asking such an important question.

      Sara

      Reply
      1. Sarah

        Thanks for replying. Assuming images of logos and products are covered under Fair Use, what is the proper way to snag them? Sticking with my given examples, if I search for “adidas logo” on Google Images, I get a zillion images from just as many sources, including other blogs who have used them. Is it acceptable to grab an image like that from another blog or non-official site?

        Reply
        1. Sara Post author

          Sarah, if you are going to use a logo from a brand (assuming covered by Fair Use) it would be best to find one on their site to ensure the image has not been altered. It also ensures you have what is likely the most recent version, as they may have changed colors or re-styled it.

          Google Images is a very helpful tool, but if you are unsure of the source you can’t be certain that the image is accurate.

          As for ‘acceptable’, I’m not sure brands openly advocate anyone taking images from their site. However, they would likely prefer you using an accurate image to one that has been altered or modified.

          Reply
  2. Chelsy Cardin

    Thank you for posting such a great article that everyone can benefit from! Most photographers would be thrilled if someone wanted to use their image…just get permission from the photographer first.

    Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      Chelsy,

      Thank you for visiting and sharing your perspective. I think you hit the nail on the head – get permission first.

      Sara

      Reply
  3. Lisa Warninger

    Thanks so much for this post! I’m so happy to have accurate information, so many people don’t understand Copyright Laws and your post helps clarify a lot of misinformation. Thanks again!

    Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      Hello Lisa,

      Thank you! That’s my goal – to provide correct information so bloggers don’t put their hard work at risk and so photographers get the credit they deserve. It truly can be a win-win!

      Kindly,
      Sara

      Reply
  4. Anna

    Wow, this is exactly the information I needed! I have used the free commons on flickr for my previous posts and was wondering about how I would go about featuring a particular designer. You truly helped me, but before I create another post, I’m going to brush up on what other ethical blogging information I may need. I’m so glad I saw your post!

    Reply
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  9. Calla Gold

    Sara,
    Thanks you so much for this super informative article. I am one of those that didn’t know this stuff and hope that I haven’t ruffled feathers with my occasional use of google image photos.
    I take a lot of my own photos for that reason.
    Calla Gold
    Calla Gold Jewelry
    Santa Barbara

    Reply
  10. Leo

    Dear Sara,

    Let’s say that I want to use a David Beckham photo (taken recently on a football pitch). If there’s no logo/info, how can I find who is the photographer to ask him for permission?

    Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      Leo, if there is no indication as to the source (for example, Getty always puts a watermark on their images, but sometimes people will crop them out – which is illegal) it’s probably best to keep searching for an image where you can verify the source and possibly the copyright holder. While Fair Use will allow for use of images in certain circumstances, there are many professional image companies (Getty is one) that is vigilant in their copyright enforcement and even if you have a Fair Use claim they may push you to prove it in court. That’s not often the outcome you want from using an image.

      Thank you for your question!

      Sara

      Reply
  11. Mike

    Hi Sara…I have a question, you probably answered this already in so many words but I might need a clearer answer if you have one.

    I want to give a review on a product (hot sauce), also critique it’s labeling system as to how it’s confusing to the average person. I found some photos in the net of the labels using google search. The hot sauce also has it’s own website.

    Can I use any of the photos, either from their own webiste or from somewhere else to use on my blog to show how confusing their 3 different labels are and how one might make a mistake buying the hotter sauce because they mistook the label thiking it was a milder sauce?

    To break it down as easily as I can, people in the pepper world think like this: Green = mild, orange/yellow = medium, red = hottest, the labels for this particular sauce are green = just below medium, red = medium, orange = above medium per his own labels. This has been mentioned on another site but I want to do my own review on my blog.

    So again, would I be breaking any laws if I used photos found of their labels on the net for this purpose?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      What you are asking about is Fair Use of images. I wrote a pretty extensive piece here – http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/copyright-fair-use-and-how-it-works-for-online-images/

      You may also wish to read this short article about defamation and how to state your point in a way that is protective of your rights as well as theirs. http://www.savingforsomeday.com/blog-law-defamation-and-social-media/

      Using images from the brand’s website for critique/commentary may fall under the Fair Use exception. It is rarely ever a good idea to use images that were found through a search engine search as the copyright issues can be time consuming.

      Many people do product/book/art/marketing reviews without difficulty. Using ones own images is always safest.

      Reply
  12. Mike

    Oh, I also forgot to mention this:

    If I bought a product and took my own pictures of the labels/logo, etc… would it be illegal to use those on the internet to make a review or to critique a product?

    Reply
  13. Tegan

    My partner and I stumbled
    over here by a different web address
    and thought I may as well check things out. I like
    what I see
    so i am just following you. Look forward to checking
    out your web page
    for a second time.

    Reply
  14. Nancy

    By publicly posting images and/or content on Facebook, you are giving FB full rights to them. Stock photo sites do not allow ANY transfer of rights, so you can not use purchased stock photos on Facebook. Here is how Facebook words their own terms:

    For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.

    Reply
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  16. Joe

    I used a website designer who built a website for me. after a year, one company claims that one of the photos used was their own and is seeking damages. who is liable, the website designer who used that photo or the end user of the web site ?

    Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      Joe, this is one of those “it depends” situations. As the user of an image, the copyright holder may seek redress from the user who is violating the copyright. However, depending on the agreement between you and the designer you may then be able to seek indemnification for any loses due to the acts of the designer.

      Unfortunately, copyright holders do not care how an alleged infringer came about using their copyrighted image. As the one allegedly violating the copyright, it is you they have an action against.

      Speak to your designer to determine how the image was obtained and if there was a license under which the image was used. If there was a license for the image that would cover the use, that should be brought to the attention of the copyright holder. If the use is not covered by the license or exceeded the time frame of the license there may be liability. Furthermore, if there was no license to use the image and it is not in the public domain the use may be violating a copyright and the copyright holder is within their rights to seek redress.

      Reply
  17. Sheena

    Hello Sara,

    I loved your advice here! I just had one additional question. Let’s say I wanted to use someone’s pictures for my website, and they granted me permission. Do I need to have something specific written out and signed? Is there some sort of a contract that needs to be filled out? If you could let me know what needs to be done to make sure that I am “safe”, that would be so much help!

    Thank you!

    Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      Sheena, one of the great things about email is that there is a record of the conversation. Even if there isn’t an elaborate, legalese-laden, official contract there is still something “in writing” that sets forth what the parties intended.

      There are some drawbacks to not having a formal contract, though. Often a contract will consider a variety of contingencies that are not normally discussed and hammered out through email.

      Unfortunately, there is no “safe” option. Instead, if you’re communicating with a copyright holder for permission to use their image it’s best to consider how you wish to use the image and get permission for those specific uses.

      Reply
  18. Gabriel Altman

    Sara,

    Lets say I want to use a photo of a stadium the in my advertisement. Would I be in doing something against any copyright laws. Lets say I want a photo of the Stanley Cup and use that in an ad, is there anything against that in the copyright laws.

    Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      Gabriel,

      It depends. Many building are subject to copyright and/or trademark protection and thus, photographing them for use in commercial purposes violates the holder’s exclusive rights.

      The same for the Stanley Cup. Photographing a copyrighted work amounts to reproducing the item and is prohibited by law. Trademark infringement may also come in to play when photographing trademarked items as well.

      ~ Sara

      Reply
  19. Marj

    Thank you for the infos, Sara. The last thing I want is to be sued.
    However, in my case, I’m actually creating a resource information folder for a medical ward and been searching updated infos online, including photos with copyright on them. If it is for group of people-medical field- for educational use, will the purpose of use be under the copyright fair use? Not for blogging.

    Reply
  20. Immigration Adviser Westminister

    Hello, yeah this article is really pleasant and I have learned lot of things from it regarding blogging.
    thanks.

    Reply
  21. Brian

    Sara,

    Thank you so much for sharing this information! The links you shared for stock images are also very helpful!

    Reply
  22. Sue

    Can I use a photo I found on Google while searching for labeled for commercial reuse with modification? What kind of modification would make it OK for me to use? If it is of a celebrity sports figure, is there anything else I would have to do to use the photo?

    Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      Sue, images found on Google may not properly reflect the appropriate copyright reservations from the owner. Always try to find the original work from the copyright holder to ensure you’re getting the correct information. When using images of people, their right of publicity will often run contrary to copyright needs so permission to use an image of a person is often required from that person, especially when they are a celebrity.

      Reply
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