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How to Legally Use Images Online

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How to Legally Use Images Online

I’ll admit it: I hate working with restrictions when writing and publishing blog posts.

I want to write whatever I think will be most useful or interesting to the reader. And if I come across gorgeous images that will make the post absolutely light up? I want to include those without having to think twice about where they came from.

But you know what I hate more than restrictions? Reading a letter that declares I’m being sued for copyright infringement due to my careless copying and pasting. Here in America images, like all creative works, are protected by US copyright law. Publish the wrong photo on your blog and you might have the pleasure of opening a sternly worded cease and desist letter. Or worse.

Copyright holders are not obligated to warn you before they take the matter to civil court.

And this isn’t an irrational fear. Just a few months ago major publisher Elite Daily was slapped with a lawsuit by a photojournalist for using his pictures without permission.

In this post, I’m going to teach you how to you can find and publish legally compliant images using the following methods:

1) Snapping your own photos
2) Using public domain images
3) Properly attributing creative commons works
4) Taking advantage of the concept of “Fair Use”
5) Purchasing a license for stock photos

As well as the model release, and when it’s needed.

Caveat: I’m not a lawyer, and the positions in this post are my own and based on my personal research and experience. If you want actual legal advice, I’d get a few tips from someone with an actual law degree.

Method 1: Take Your Own

Why even get images elsewhere? If you can find a relevant subject around your office, just snap your own photos. Since they’ll be completely original, your readers won’t be able to see them anywhere else, which isn’t the case with public domain or stock photos.

Obviously it would be ideal if you could use a pro-style DSLR when taking photos. But thanks to brilliant hardware engineers, you don’t need top quality equipment to bring out your inner Annie Leibovitz.

The quality of smart phone cameras has improved incredibly in the past decade. If you have an iPhone 6 or a Samsung Galaxy S6 in your pocket, you already own something on par with stand-alone point-and-shoot cameras.

Just look at this gorgeous photo of the Golden Gate Bridge taken by an iPhone:

Golden Gate Bridge

In fact, the typical barrier to getting quality images this way isn’t the equipment, it’s the technical skill of the person taking the photographs. Fortunately, if you bone up on the basics of lighting, framing, and other principles of photography you can get slick photos from your phone easily.

But wait, when you take a photo with your camera for your blog, and you work for a company, do you or your employer own the copyright? I’m glad you asked.

The photos you take as part of your job, like just all the works you produce in your job, are works made for hire. That means even though you actually did the photographing, the company you work for owns the copyright unless you have explicitly agreed to maintain the copyright of your works.

Method 2: Public Domain

Images in the public domain have been unshackled from copyright. They are owned by nobody. So you can publish them, change them, sell prints of them, or do anything you want with them.

What is or is not public domain is somewhat complicated. People can (and have) written entire books on the subject.

Public Domain Book

Me learning how to avoid lawyers

There are some instances where the creator of an image chooses to release it into the public domain. But the most common sources of copyrighted images are old images and images produced by the government.

By “old” I just mean the copyright term has expired. You can’t just claim copyright on intellectual property forever (sorry, descendants of Shakespeare.) For example, in the United States, any work published before 1923 is not protected by copyright. Photos published between 1923 and 1977 without a copyright notice are also in the public domain.

Take, for example, this stylish picture of actress Norma Shearer.

Norma Shearer

I found it through Wikimedia Commons. But since it was published in 1927 without a copyright notice or registration, it’s public domain. I can publish it or change it however I want and I’m not legally required to cite any source. (You may, however, elect to cite a source anyway if they are part of your editorial guidelines.)

However, there are special circumstances where other photos can have an expired copyright. For a complete breakdown of copyright terms in the US, check out this table from Cornell University.

By government photos, I mean photos by federal government employees as a part of their job. Photos of Yosemite taken by employees of the National Park Service or official portraits of politicians are public domain. For example, check out this photo of the Supreme Court, taken in 2010.

Supreme Court

I also found it through Wikimedia Commons, and it’s also 100% free to use since it was taken by a government employee as a part of their duties.

As you can guess, Wikimedia Commons hosts a ton of public domain images.. But if they don’t have what you’re looking for, you can look at what’s available through Wikipedia’s list of public domain image resources.

Method 3: Creative Commons

Not seeing any good public domain images you can use? Your next best free option is Creative Commons. The Creative Commons license gives photographers the ability to release their photos to the public, while still retaining some control over how they are used.

So how can you use photographs protected by the Creative Commons license?

That depends on what kind of license the creator has used. All licenses fall into two broad categories: those that allow the photos to be used for commercial use and those that forbid commercial use. Commercial use “is one primarily intended for commercial advantage or monetary compensation.” So if you’re working for or manage a for-profit company, I’d steer away from Creative Commons images that are labeled “Non-Commercial.”

These licenses fall into three more categories that determine how you must attribute and modify the images.

1) Attribution

The license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon the creator’s work, even commercially, as long as they credit the creator for the original creation.

The attribution license gives you the most amount of freedom. You can change it as much as you like, and as long as you credit the person who made the image, you’re good.

2) Attribution-ShareAlike

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon the creator’s work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit the creator and license their new creations under the identical terms.

In other words, you’re free to change the image as much as you want and publish it as long as you cite the source. But you must release the brand new image under the exact same Attribution-ShareAlike Creative Commons license.

3) Attribution-ShareAlike No Derivatives

This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to the creator.

So, just like the others, you’re allowed to use the image if you cite the person who made it. But you aren’t allowed to crop it, add pictures of poodles on top of it, or do anything else to change it. You have to use it “as is”.

How can you know which images has which license? The restrictions of the Creative Commons license are usually published right alongside the image online.

Finding Free to Use Images with Google

Let’s pretend that you’re writing a blog post that helps readers spruce up their home with the coolest Halloween decorations. (Side note: Halloween is actually almost upon us, so you better have your seasonal content for it scheduled now.)

You can’t just do a Google image search to find the images you want. That’s how you risk copyright infringement. However, there’s a neat tool within Google Images to help you quickly find all the images you can use.

When you do a search click on “Search Tools” and then “Usage rights.” You’ll see four categories. To find the images that give you the most freedom, click on “Labeled for reuse with modification.” You’ll probably find lots of images you can use.

Halloween Decorations

Find one that you like and click-through to its source so you can learn and correctly apply its license restrictions.

Using this method, I clicked on the second image listed and found an image hosted on Wikipedia. Then I scrolled down to see its licensing restrictions.

Wikipedia License

This is a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license that is cleared for commercial use. I just need to attribute it to the creator and I can use it however I like. Perfect!

Halloween Decorations

Thanks for the spooky image Anthony22 at en.wikipedia.

Now that you understand your best free options, let’s take a look at how you can use copyrighted images.

Method 4: Fair Use

So let’s say you found a perfect image for your blog post. But it’s copyrighted, and there’s no obvious way to get a license to use it. You might try to track down the copyright holder and ask for permission to use the image. But they might be unreachable or refuse. So are you out of luck? Not necessarily. If you take that work and change it so much that it essentially becomes a new work, you might be in the clear.

There’s an interesting concept in copyright law called “fair use”. It allows you use images that are protected by copyright under certain circumstances.

Judges look at four main factors when determining whether or not an image is covered by fair use:

1) The Purpose and Character of Your Use

Is the work “transformative”. That is, did it take the copyrighted work and transform it into something meaningfully different?

2) The Nature of the Copyrighted Work

If the copyrighted work displays a low-level of originality or creativity to begin with, it’s easier to make a fair use claim.

3) The Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Taken

If you take just a small portion of the copyrighted work, it’s easier to make a fair use claim.

4) The Effect of the Use Upon the Potential Market

If the work makes it less likely that people will purchase the work on which it is based, it’s less likely to claim fair use.

If you want an example of fair use at work, think of gifs.

How can so many blogs get away with publishing long lists of animated gifs from television shows and movies and not have an army of lawyers from Hollywood studios pounding down the doors of their offices?

While there hasn’t yet been a major court case that specifically deals with gifs (as funny as though that would be to see), it’s likely that a court would find that gifs are legally protected. (Breathe a sigh of relief, Buzzfeed writers.)

Take, for example, this gif that uses material from the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.”

A two second, low image resolution clip is a significantly different from a half-hour sitcom episode. Additionally, it’s a tiny amount taken from the copyrighted work. Plus, the existence of this gif will not harm the creators of “How I Met Your Mother” financially. If anything, it might inspire some people to seek the show out. So, it’s likely that this gif falls squarely in the domain of “fair use.”

While “Fair Use” is an option to you when publishing images, be warned that it’s one of the murkiest concepts in copyright law. As always, when in doubt consult a lawyer.

Editor Note: At SEJ are strict with photos and have erred to the side of caution. Hence why we didn’t host the above-mentioned gif directly and instead linked to it.

Method 5: Stock Photos

Now we’ve finally come to the option that requires you to pay. Stock photos are photos that creators license out to anyone who is willing to pay their licensing fee. Buying a license gives you the right to use the photo in any way prescribed by the licensing agreement. The main advantage of stock photo sites is that they contain a massive number of pictures that can help you in almost any niche. And since stock photographers are pros, the quality is typically very high.

Some of the most popular stock photos sites include Shutterstock, iStock, and Corbis Images.

Important note: You are not allowed to use stock photos in any way you please. They sometimes restrict the purpose or the context of the image you use. So always the read the licensing agreement thoroughly. For example, certain photos are used for “Editorial Use Only”. In these instances, you can use them for a publication like a newsletter or a blog, but you can’t use them for a Facebook ad or a corporate home page.

The Model Release

You’re usually free and clear if you use pictures you take yourself, public domain images, and creative commons images. But there is one important exception. If the photo you’re using has an identifiable person (that is, you can clearly see who they are) and the image is being used for an explicitly commercial purpose (like a landing page or an advertisement), you may not have the right to use their image.

In these cases, you’ll need the subject of the photograph to sign a model release. The American Society of Media Photographers has a simple one you can use. Stock photos of models usually, but not always, come with a model release.

Stay Legally Safe

There’s no doubt that navigating around copyright laws will make sourcing images a little more time-consuming. But once you become familiar with the best sources for legally compliant images, you’ll be able to find the perfect photos for your blog posts in no time.

In the process, not only will you respect the people who take the time and effort to create images, you will also decrease the odds of running into legal trouble.

 

Image Credits

Featured Image: Tomertu/Shutterstock.com
In-post Photo #1: Rob Bye/Unsplash.com
In-post Photo #2: Image by Kimberly Cook-Strain. Used with permission.
In-post Photo #3: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
In-post Photo #4: Steve Petteway/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
In-post Photo #5: ©Anthony22/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0/GFDL

All screenshots by Logan Strain. Taken September 2015.

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Logan Strain

Logan Strain

Logan Strain has written web content professionally since Facebook was only used by college students. You may have seen seen ... [Read full bio]

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