In the online world, it is easier than ever to simply do an online search for an image you want, find a suitable photo, and copy/paste into your blog or website to make it look perfect. Nothing wrong with that, right?? WRONG!! Using photos and images you find online can be extremely tricky because of a little thing called copyright.
Essentially, US Copyright laws prevent individuals from using the original work of others without permission. This means, even though you may be physically able to copy/paste a photo from a Google image search, you might not have the right to do it. Someone else likely took that photo and is allowed the exclusive right to decide what happens to that photo and how it is used. This is why we can’t all go around making millions off Disney character images!
Questions to Ask before Using Graphics or Images
Here is a quick guide when looking at graphics online, and how to decide if you should use the image:
1. Did you take or create the image?
If you took the photo or created the image from scratch — from your own design software, you are probably okay to use this photo and likely own the copyright to this image. This is the ideal situation, UNLESS:
2. Were you working for someone else as an employee at the time you created this graphic, in furtherance or relation to your work for your employer?
If so, the employer may own the copyright to the work you created, by way of something called a “work for hire,” meaning they own work you do for them. If this is the case, talk to your employer and see if you can obtain written permission to use the image or graphic.
3. Can you use someone else’s photo/image if you give them credit?
Probably not. Taking content and giving someone else credit for it does not eliminate a copyright claim they may have against you. Why? Because copyright laws give the owner of the work the right to decide where his or her work appears, and the owner may or may not like the idea of their image on your website. If not, giving them credit wouldn’t prevent them from coming after you.
4. What if you find a photo online you want to use?
ASK PERMISSION. If you are able to find the owner of an image or graphic, reach out to them to see if they will give you permission to use their photo, and if so, get their permission in writing (via email, etc. is usually okay) to confirm you have the right to use their photo.
5. What about stock images?
Using stock images from a hosted website is usually a great option. Stock images that are either confirmed to be “in the public domain” (not owned by anyone) or from websites that provide you with a license to use images in exchange for a fee are your best bet. My only word of warning here is to check the fine print about licensing photos from these stock photo websites; some may give a duration to how long you can use the photo or otherwise give restrictions that you want to make sure you’re aware of!
6. What if I take someone else’s image and change the colors?
Taking a copyrighted image and making specific changes is usually called a “derivative work” – a right that is also given to the copyright holder to allow him/her to make similar version of his or her own work. This issue gets a little bit trickier, but for purposes of this article, suffice it to say…still no dice. Don’t use it!
So How Do I Avoid Copyright Issues in my Business?
In practice, always assume every image is copyright by someone. If you can trace the image back to (A) Yourself, (B) a Stock Image website that confirms the photos are not subject to copyright, OR that you have a license to use the photos, or (C) have written permission from the owner of the image to use it, you are in the clear. If you find yourself with no idea who owns the photo, and you aren’t on a stock photo website, it’s best to avoid using the photo, and look for something else.