Images On Your Site Are Probably Breaking the Law. Here’s How to Protect Yourself.

Suspicious guy holding two framed paintingsI have no intention of picking on anyone in particular – let me say that right up front.

But recently, in a developers’ group I participate in on Facebook which shall remain unnamed, another member (also to remain unnamed) posted a link to his blog post about a really interesting topic (not important).

It was a good post – let’s be clear on that.

And it had an image, which (since it was being shared on FB) was pulled into the original FB group post.

And then another member chimed in with a gentle prod — she’d recognized the image. It was original artwork from a friend of hers.

It probably won’t shock you at this point to learn there was no attribution or credit or link from the developer’s post to the artist’s site.

The author of the post quickly changed the image and posted in the group something to the effect of “Oh, cripes, sorry, didn’t realize … I just pulled that image off Google Images.

Girl with her head on her desk

Again: Not to pick on anyone, but this drives me a little bit batty.

And more to the point, if this is what you’re doing to find images for blog posts or other marketing purposes?

You’re (probably) breaking the law.

If that sounds like something you’d like to – y’know, avoid doing in the future, you’ve come to the right place.

A Layperson’s One-Minute Guide to Copyright Law in the U.S.

Please note: I am not a lawyer. I did go to and graduate from an accredited law school in the U.S,, but the following in no way constitutes legal advice. Also, the following discussion is strictly about U.S. copyright law. The EU countries and other nations have their own copyright/IP laws which may provide different protections and rules. If you’re concerned about a specific issue relating to your business, no matter where you are, you should absolutely not rely on the following – instead, seek out qualified counsel from a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction. Capisce? Movin’ on!

The instant any person creates a work of intellectual property and reduces it to a tangible form — be it a drawing, a photo, a novel, or yes, even a blog post — it is instantly protected by copyright laws in the U.S.

It doesn’t matter if there’s a © symbol anywhere on the work or the page you first found it on or not.

It doesn’t matter if the work has been registered with the U.S. Copyright Office or not.

It’s fully copyrighted, UNLESS the owner of the copyright (usually the creator, but not always) explicitly says otherwise.

Fun fact: if you register your work with the USCO, then you do get one pretty cool benefit, and that’s getting statutory damages and attorney’s fees if and when you file suit against someone who infringed on your copyright. Plus some other advantages. See page 7 of this PDF pamphlet from the USCO.

So, if you want to use images in blog posts or in your designs or on your sites, you MUST have permission from the creator of the image. Always. No exceptions.

Except for a Few Exceptions

OK, OK, there are a few exceptions … but they’re capable of hair-splitting distinction, and you wanna be extra careful using these.

The first exception is fair use. What this is meant for is something like a book review or film review, where the critic needs to refer to some portion of the work in order to properly critique it. So quoting a small passage or bit of dialogue from the script would probably be “fair use.” That’s allowed, without violating copyright law.

But that doesn’t really work with most editorial photo images in the context of blog posts. There, your article isn’t about that image, so fair use would not apply.

The other exception is parodyJust as with fair use, this doesn’t really play with the blog-post-image context. You’re not typically putting an image into a post for the purpose of satirizing the image.

Finally, there’s public domain. This isn’t so much an exception to copyright as it is a circumstance in which copyright protection does not even apply in the first place. The rules about when works lose copyright protection and go into the public domain are kind of complex. Suffice to say: make absolutely sure your image actually is in the public domain before you use it.

But I Got It Off Google Images …

Google Images is a search engine. Period.

It is not a repository of copyright-free, royalty-free image files anyone can use at whim.

Think about it this way: Google Book search has the text of hundreds of books, right? Let’s say you search for a passage about, say, nightingales singing, and you find a really eloquent passage from some book.

Do you think you can copy the text from that page and paste it into your own story, then pass it off as your own?

Of course not.

Google Images is no different. It simply provides you an easy way to find images.

Whether and how you can use those images, on the other hand, is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

Fine, Ms. Smarty-Pants, What Am I SUPPOSED to Do?

The right way to go about this is either:

  1. Go through a reputable stock image site and pay for the privilege;
  2. Contact the copyright holder (usually the creator but not always) via email or contact form and ask for permission; or
  3. Search for CC-Attribution licensed images in Flickr and give the creator attribution.

CC-Attribution is one form of Creative Commons licenses that many artists/creators use in lieu of traditional copyright laws. Legally, they’re deemed a form of “advance permission with conditions.”

In other words, as long as you meet the conditions (e.g., give the creator due attribution/credit), you can use the image for whatever purpose the creator allows.

What are those purposes? Well, generally you can put it on any kind of blog post or other editorial use.

What you can’t do, usually, is turn the image into a money-maker for yourself. So, no putting CC-A images on t-shirts or coffee mugs or turning them into prints and offering them for sale.

UPDATE: Sharon Hurley Hall wrote THE definitive guide to finding cool images for blog posts here, at the Crazy Egg blog. Bookmark that one, folks. Send it to Evernote. Hold it close and never let it go, ’cause it’s THAT good.

The SPM-Approved Shortcut

To save time and effort, use Photopin. This site searches all the CC-licensed images on Flickr and magically somehow provides several different size options for each image.

Not only that, but Photopin also provides you the HTML for attribution. All you have to do is copy and paste it into the text editor of your WP Dashboard “Add Post” page.

Why This Matters

Because it just does, is why.

Because we’re supposed to be ethical and moral in our dealings, both personally and professionally.

Because you can get in serious trouble if you don’t.

Because it’s only fair to give the person who did all the work the right to determine where and how that work gets seen.

Because “you should be grateful for the exposure” is a bullshit rationalization that doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

Because karma is a bitch, and you don’t want people stealing your work without credit and permission.

Because it’s the right damn thing to do.

UPDATE: Because you don’t wanna be like this guy.

What do you think? Have I missed a killer option for finding/using images legally? If there are any lawyers reading this, did I misstate something? (I did do some research just to make sure the laws haven’t radically changed but, y’know, law school was a long time ago for me and mistakes are entirely possible…) Share your thoughts in the comments!

UPDATE 8/29/2014: For further information about copyright law and its impact on our social media/sharing economy, check out this article by Erica Napoletano at AmEx Open.

Photo credit, #1:   Frank Knaack. via photopin cc

Photo credit, #2: Love.Sasha.Lynn via photopin cc

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharon Hurley Hall June 10, 2014 at 3:05 pm

Great tips, Annie. May I link drop? I recently did a guide to finding CC and Public Domain images which might help those looking for resources beyond Photopin and Flickr.

Annie Sisk June 10, 2014 at 3:18 pm

YES! I was looking for that post but couldn’t find it! Updating my post with that link now – ’cause seriously, it is THE definitive guide.

Nicole Fende June 10, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Ooh this is great stuff! I’ve heard that whole “but it’s on the internet” BS before.

Sharon Hurley Hall June 10, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Thanks, Annie. I make the same point as you, that finding something via Google Image Search doesn’t constitute a license to use it. 🙂

Annie Sisk June 10, 2014 at 3:35 pm

And it’s kinda scary we STILL have to have that conversation, isn’t it?

Annie Sisk June 10, 2014 at 3:36 pm

YES, OMG another headdesk-trigger. Y’know there are some arguments to be made *against* copyright legal systems and by all means, let’s have that discussion. But until Congress changes the *current* law it is STILL the law!

Melanie Kissell June 10, 2014 at 3:43 pm

It’s SO easy to make the wrong move, Annie, when it comes to finding images online. Your post is FAB and will help bloggers and others avoid copyright issues. You rock!

Sharon Hurley Hall June 10, 2014 at 4:23 pm

Yes, it certainly is.

Nick Armstrong June 10, 2014 at 9:01 pm

As someone whose comics have been stolen halfway around the internet and back, abso-friggin-lutely. Citing your sources wasn’t just a high school chore and it most certainly shouldn’t stop when you start up your own blog. Whether you’re spouting off facts and figures or using someone else’s artwork (image, illustration, whatever) – you’d better damn sure try to at least give attribution AT A MINIMUM. Creative Commons is great and there are several photographers actively working to boost the number and quality of creative commons licensed images. There’s just no excuse for laziness when it’s JUST AS EASY to find a creative commons image and give credit as it is to rip something off.

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: