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A guide to using images online legally

A lot of care is needed when using images. Learn about the laws governing the use of images online, how licenses work, and how to locate copyright-free images.

Content that shines online relies heavily on images. Adding visuals to a blog post, webpage, ebook, or any other piece of content will improve its overall user experience. You cannot simply pull images from the internet – it’s your responsibility to determine if and how you can use the image without violating copyright. You need to know if you have legal rights to use any image, regardless of where you obtained it – whether from Google, social media, or a stock photo site. Violations of copyright (even accidentally) have serious consequences. Those found guilty of copyright violations could face up to $150,000 in fines. In the event of a trial, a party found guilty of copyright infringement is also responsible for all attorney fees and court costs. However, that’s not all – the court has the right to impounded any work containing a copyright violation, and in extreme cases, the copyright infringer may be jailed.

Discover the different types of images and how to use them online.

Use Public Domain Images (a.k.a. ‘No Copyright’ Images)

Public Domain images have no copyright because:

  • The copyright has expired.
  • The work never had copyright to begin with.
  • The copyright holder released the work into the public domain.
  • The image is a U.S. work published before January 1, 1924.

A copyright-free image will have the Public Domain Mark 1.0 or the CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Mark. Public domain images do not require any citation.

You can obtain public domain images on sites like Wikimedia Commons and Flickr Commons.

Use Creative Commons Images

The Creative Commons license is another great (and free) source of photos. Creative Commons licenses allow photographers to release their photos to the public while retaining some control over how they are used.

There are two categories of Creative Commons-licensed photos:

  • Those that allow commercial use.
  • Those that don’t.

Uses intended primarily for monetary compensation or commercial advantage are considered commercial.

  • That compensation can be direct or indirect. For example, if you use an image in a blog post or website that is affiliated with a for-profit business, the use is commercial.

Use only Creative Commons photos that are allowed for commercial use. Please do not use Creative Commons photos where commercial use is not allowed if you are working for a for-profit company.

Use Stock Photos

A stock photo is a photo that creators license to anyone who is willing to pay a licensing fee. You can use a licensed image in any way that is described in the licensing agreement. A major benefit of stock photo sites is that they offer a broad range of relevant images relevant to almost any niche – and since stock photographers are professionals, the quality is usually high. However, it’s important to note that even stock photos come with some restrictions. Certain photographs are available only for editorial use – you can use such photos in publications such as newsletters and blogs, but not for advertising or social media. Licensing agreements should always be read carefully.

Use Your Own Images

It is also possible to take your own pictures. You are not in danger of violating any copyright if you are the photographer. Plus, the photos will be all original – fresh content for the win! You don’t have to buy a professional camera – most smartphones today have cameras that are on par with those in DSLRs. Light and background framing are important to making your pictures look professional. If you prefer, you can hire someone to take images for you – just make sure the contract specifies your exclusive rights to the pictures.

Use Social Media Images Only with Permission

A social media image is no different than any other image you’ll find online, in that you should act responsibly and ask for permission before posting it. People often regram or embed social media images into their own content, but that doesn’t make it legal. As an example, Instagram’s terms of service clearly state that the copyright of any Instagram image belongs to the poster. Use of social media content without permission can result in legal action – and legal fees and judgments could cripple a small business. Be cautious at all times. A simple direct message (or comment) asking for permission to use the image is quick and easy, and will protect you – and you’re likely to get the permission you need.

Avoid Using GIFs

Despite the fact that GIFs are ubiquitous throughout online content, their use is not legal. GIFs can be argued to fall under the doctrine of fair use. In certain cases, copyrighted works can be used according to fair use doctrine. You might use fair use when you see an image on a search engine that matches what you searched for. In addition, a teacher who distributes coursework that includes copyrighted material or news coverage of such material would also be considered fair use. The concept of fair use extends to works that are a “transformative” use of the original work – that is, a brief, looping clip from a movie is not representative of the entire work and so does not undermine its value. For you to operate completely at no risk, you’d need the permission of both the people who appear in the GIF and the copyright holder of the original work – and that sounds like a lot of effort for something that will probably end in failure.