Law and Etiquette of Online Photo Use

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 online photo has something to do with the content. Photos and images are especially important for storytelling. Remember that “A picture is worth a thousand words” adage?

I always thought everyone knew that copying and pasting photos, images, or any content found on the internet was a definite no-no. It should be assumed that every online photo, design, or written work you find online is protected by copyright, whether here in the US or from another country extending such rights, unless otherwise indicated.

When I speak on this topic, one of the questions I ask the audience is how many people have had an online photos or something they posted online stolen. Nearly every hand in the room goes up.

I usually go on to ask how many people have used an online photo straight from Google Images. That one always shocks me, because, again, I would think people would know that Google is a good resource and not a free photo site.

Today I want to discuss using photos and images found online and photo/image copyright laws. I will not talk about using images from a brand’s website. The focus is on  images and photos found by searching the internet and finding an online photo suitable for your needs.

What is Copyright? Copyright is protection created by the US Constitution that gives virtually every author the exclusive right to use or reproduce their work. This is a United States 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 worldwide. This makes photo copyright laws very broadly applicable to online content creators.

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 or image/graphic created gives the author (the one who takes the photo or creates the image or graphic) a protectable right to prevent others from using or reproducing their work. Of course, there are exceptions, but generally, the photographer or designer/creator 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 obtains its copyright upon creation.

If the photo or image is only on your hard drive or cloud drive there really is no significant issue regarding unauthorized copying. It’s when you upload your photo or image to a sharing site, your website, your blog, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, 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 pursue an infringement lawsuit  or avail yourself of the benefits of statutory damages in an infringement suit you will first need to register your work with the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress, and do so in a timely manner. (I will not discuss this process here, that’s for another day.)

The Law and Etiquette of Using Online Photos

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 or creator 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 from a copyright infringement claim 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 or demand a hefty sum 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 public domain. There is a difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism and it’s important to know the difference.

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. US 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. Read over the rules so you know exactly what type of attribution you must provide and make sure you understand the terms of use.

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

Conclusion Before taking any photo or image off the internet to use in your business or for a client’s business, 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 online photo. It doesn’t take a lot of time to find a quality online photo. It surely takes much less time than what you would have to spend if you get a cease and desist, DMCA take down notice, demand letter, or complaint that an infringement suit has been filed (though this last one is very rare).

Law and Etiquette of Online Photo Use