Having great images is so important for your business and blog. It’s a way to enhance your point, show examples, create unique graphics and lots more. However, it can be confusing to know what is and isn’t okay when it comes to making sure that you are posting images legally. This post will help you make sure you are doing things the right way.
(Disclaimer: I’m a US-based attorney so this info is directed towards US bloggers, but it may also apply to international bloggers. Check your country’s laws for more information about laws and regulations in your country.)
First off – why should I care about the legality of photo use online?
To put it very basically – pretty much every photo on the internet is copyright protected (we’ll get into some exceptions below). This means that if you use someone else’s photo without their permission (or without the proper licensing), then your usage is copyright infringement. This also means that if someone else uses one of your photos without your permission, that person is infringing upon your copyright.
What are copyrights exactly and what do they protect?
Original work is protected by copyright laws. Very basically, the creator of an original piece of work (writing, graphics, photographs, etc) has copyright protection over her work. This gives the creator of the work the right to control the copying of their work, including things like not just copying, but also creation of derivative works, reprinting, displaying and more. Someone else would need to get the copyright owner’s permission before basically doing anything with the copyright protected work.
In the US, your original work is automatically copyright protected from the moment that it is created or published. This is without you needing to formally register your work. Although the creator of the work has automatic protection from the moment of creation, if she wants to actually sue for copyright infringement, the work must already be registered with the copyright office. It’s also important to note that work is copyright protected even if there isn’t explicit language or the © symbol used.
But, seriously, doesn’t EVERYONE just repost and reuse random photos they found online?
Short answer – yes lots of people do but it’s not legal.
It’s like speeding – lots of people do it but it doesn’t matter it legal. Because you don’t often hear of people getting caught, it can seem like it’s no big deal. But it’s still unlawful to post photos where you don’t have permission and you can get caught up in a legal battle and possibly have to fork over hundreds or thousands of dollars to settle a claim. Although lots of people get away with using images without proper permission, there are definitely people who get found out and have to pay. It’s just not worth the risk.
So where can I get stock photos? And how do I know it’s okay to use them?
There are lots of stock photo sites out there, both free and paid. This can be a great way to find amazing photographs or images for your website. When looking for stock photos, you need to pay attention to language about allowed usage or licensing language.
As I explained above, the creator of a creative work, such a photograph, is the automatic holder of the copyright. She can choose to retain all of the rights (which is total cool), relinquish all of her rights (basically saying anyone can use the photo in any way at all – it’s now in the “public domain”) or do something in between. Being in the “public domain” means that the photo isn’t covered anymore by intellectual property rights – the rights have been forfeited (such as you put the work out there to be used by anyone) or the rights have expired (different works’ copyright periods vary from 50 – 150 years – this is why novels from centuries ago are now in the “public domain.”)
If you use a stock photo site, make sure you understand what kind of use is permitted under the license and if/when the license expires. As the user of the photo, it’s up to you to understand what you are using and you would be the one to be held liable for any improper usage. So it’s important to make sure you know what rights you have before you use the photo.
For sites that aggregate photos taken by others, it’s up to you to do your due diligence that the stock photo site has proper rights to be offering this photo. You might assume that the site properly retained the photo and the photographer’s rights, but that isn’t always the case. Be sure to do your research before you use any photo, since it will be you and your biz on the line if the photographer didn’t properly relay the rights and comes after you.
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What if I properly use a photo but then the photographer revokes the license or the license expires?
I’m not sure if this is a common situation, such as you get a free stock photo that’s open for any type of use and then the photographer revokes the license, but I’ve gotten this question. Although I’m not aware of a specific situation where this has happened, just like anything else, it could happen. The only way to protect yourself from this is to do your research and keep track of your licenses. If you purchase a photo and there is an expiration date for the license, be sure to note that.
Whew this is a lot to remember, right? I’ve got you covered with a FREE Legal Images Checklist for you to download. Just enter your info below to have this handy guide which includes some extra things to keep in mind!
What about reposting stuff on social media?
This is a huge question and I get this a TON. So let’s recap what we learned – the creator of original work is the copyright holder from the moment of creation meaning only she can reuse, post, edit, etc her photo or graphic. This means photos on blogs, memes and graphics. She is the owner unless she gives some permission (which is basically a limited license) or explicitly makes the photo available for specific use / any use.
We know lots of stuff on the internet gets shared and often the creator might want her work shared, such as with a funny meme. But if you don’t have the owner’s permission, then it’s copyright infringement to post someone else’s work.
Often reposting a quote or meme isn’t going to be an issue (but it could be), but the bigger problem that comes up is often with reposting photos on Instagram. Some people might be totally cool with having their photo reposted but that doesn’t mean it’s okay, even if you tag the person or give them a shoutout. And I know people who straight up have someone else post their photos with no attribution or credit or anything.
Obviously you should never do this yourself. Be sure to only post your own photos, photos where you have the proper license/permission or photos where you’ve obtained the owner’s permission.
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So what do I do if someone steals my work?
Ugh what a bummer, right? But it’s unfortunately a common issue. First off, you want to avoid issues if at all possible. If you post photos on your website, make sure to have a solid copyright statement in place to let your visitors know what you are/aren’t okay with. (Check out my Terms and Conditions Statement Template which includes a ready-to-go copyright statement.) Even though your work is copyright protected, it never hurts to remind visitors that you aren’t okay with them taking your work. If you are having an issue, you can also consider using a watermark or some other identifier to help dissuade would-be thieves but I know these can be ugly so you might not want to go this route. For social media especially Instagram, it can be harder to remind people about copyright protections but if you are a photographer, it might be worthwhile to come up with some sort of statement.
So after your work is stolen, you have a few options. The first one is to – ask nicely. The other person might’ve genuinely not know that they were reposting someone’s protected work (such as they got it off of Pinterest and couldn’t find a link back to you). Often this is enough and the problem is over. However if it continues, the next step would be to attempt to have that person’s internet service provider remove the content, by issuing a “DMCA Takedown Notice” which basically advises that person’s ISP that they are in violation of copyright laws. As a last resort, you can seek legal action by retaining a lawyer, but this is obviously the most time consuming and expensive method.
Related Post: How to Write Legal Statements to Protect Your Blog
There are of course lots of other legal situations that come up when it comes to the use of graphics and photographs online so this isn’t a comprehensive list. I hope though that it gave you a great understanding of the basics. Just like many legal issues – it’s always better to be safe than sorry, so always use your best judgment and err on the side of caution.
You can learn even MORE about protecting your content with this quick guide to keep you informed and protected!
Want a take-away of what you just learned? I thought so! Here you – get your FREE Legal Images Checklist by entering your info below –