I’ve been getting lots of questions lately about what you can and can’t do with copyright images you find online. Loads of people seem to think that just because an image shows up on a Google search it must be available for use for free. It is a common misunderstanding and now that technology has caught up, is likely to get a few people in trouble.
You might be one of those businesses who got a web developer to put together a website for you years ago, and relied upon them to sort out your images. Actually, it might not have been that long ago!
Do you know where your images have come from?
Just last year my 74 year old mother wanted a website for her Life Coaching business and briefed a small independent developer to do it for her. The very helpful and inexperienced developer said she’d look after the images and told Mum not to worry about it. When I looked at the website I was immediately really worried – all stock images (some still showing watermarks) and no licences or permissions! My immediate concern was to avoid getting any legal demands for payment for breach of copyright and a take down notice. We’ve since replaced all the images with appropriately licenced copies.
Before digital cameras, photographs weren’t likely to be shared
Copyright is something that is automatic. When a photographer takes an image, they have copyright in that image. Yes, there are exceptions, but let’s stick with the basics for now. So if you take a photo, you own copyright in that image. Would you be OK if other people used your image to promote their business? Or would you send a legal letter of demand?
In the old days before digital cameras and Facebook, you had to get your photographs processed at the local camera shop or pharmacy. Then they moved into supermarkets, and now you can order your prints online and get them delivered in the post, if you get them printed at all.
When photographs were only really shared in hard copy, it was much easier to keep track of copies and how they were used. Today, you might share a photo on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram or any one of a number of other social networking sites and think that no one will use it. That happened to a family who have a daughter with Down syndrome who is quite ill and undergoing life-saving treatment. They rarely posted photographs and when they did it was meant only for close friends and family. Just one image they posted was taken by an unknown person and uploaded to a stock photo website. The company that used the photo was advertising a prenatal test that often leads to abortions. It is not the first time a photo of a child with a disability has been misused.
Mother horrified after a company used photo of her young daughter for an offensive ad
Can you imagine how you would feel if you were incredibly protective of a member of your family, and suddenly saw their image plastered all over advertising at every bus stop and tube station you went past? All without your knowledge or consent. That is what happened to that family. The company using the image in their promotion were naturally equally distressed. They had followed the rules (about purchasing images, not about being sensible how they use them) and still ran into trouble!
With digital cameras and social media it’s so easy for images to spread internationally, overnight. That is the problem. Because images are easily accessible, people think they are free. But the same rules that applied when images were hard copy, apply today.
See a picture you like – What should you do?
What a lot of people do is use a copyright image without any thought for the consequences. Most people have no idea they are doing anything wrong. The trouble is, that can come back and bite you! You could get a legal letter of demand any day!
People complain that if you put an image out there, you should want to share it. This isn’t limited to images. A company in South Australia recently announced that they have lost $3,000,000 in sales due to the illegal download of just one of their publications. Could you afford to lose that much from your business? Do you still feel that anything you find online should be free to share?
Copyright is meant to protect the livelihood of the author, artist or creator
So, what should you do if you find an image you like online, before you plaster it on your website or social media post?
Firstly, get permission.
Yes, getting permission can be a complete pain in the @rse. Speaking from experience, it is particularly difficult to get permission to use stills from movies. I don’t know why movie houses make it so hard. Maybe the studios that produce those movies don’t recognise the need, don’t care or don’t want people to use stills from their movies. Hey Dreamworks! There is potentially a whole added industry in stills, just saying…
Anyway, sorry, back to the topic at hand –
If you purchase stock images, you get permission in the form of a license to use that image. You’re not actually buying the image like you would a postcard; you are buying a limited copyright license attached to the image. All of the images in this post are subject to copyright license. An example of some license terms include:
- …a non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide, non-transferable sub-license to use, reproduce, modify and/or display the Work, for any purpose other than as prohibited…
- By way of example, the above license may include the use, modification and/or display of the Work in connection with the following… Business and commercial purposes…
- …may post and/or upload the Social-Media Enabled Works directly onto Social Media Websites and Applications as long as…
- For greater clarity, it is noted that reproducing the unmodified Work on mugs, t-shirts, posters, or other similar merchandise for resale is not permitted, as primary value would still lie in the Work itself.
So, check the copyright license terms of your stock image or clip-art provider. Note that some have copyright terms that are time limited, rather than perpetual.
What if it is not a stock image?
If you want to use an image from somewhere else, you need their permission. If the owner is easy to find, then asking directly and keeping a copy of their written consent, is the easiest way to prove that you did have permission to use the image and the time you used it.
It is your responsibility to know the origin of your copyright images and to have the right permissions to use those images online.
Want more answers? Join our free webinar
I know that there are a whole lot more questions that people would like to ask about this topic, so I’ve put together a free webinar to cover some of the most commonly asked questions. Register here if you’d like to find out more.
When? Tuesday, 28 June 2015
Time? 10.00am – 11.00am AEST (Queensland, Australia)
If you have a specific question you’d like answered, send it through to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Webinar Question” in the subject line and I’ll do my best to cover it during the session.