The internet is awash with beautiful, compelling, eye-catching images, and it can be tempting to use them for your personal or professional project. However, most of the images you find online are not available for use without the express permission of the copyright owner. If you reproduce, publish or distribute a copyrighted work (or a work derived from a copyrighted work) without permission or a valid license, you are committing a legal offense – namely, copyright infringement.
Here’s how to navigate the world of image copyright so you can benefit from the wealth of creativity online while avoiding any legal and financial repercussions.
What is copyright?
When a person creates an image – or another type of intellectual property – the copyright to that piece of work is automatically assigned to the creator, which means they can decide how it is used and distributed. Copyright is a legal right, defined by FindLaw as “a person’s exclusive right to reproduce, publish, or sell his or her original work of authorship (as a photograph, literary, musical, dramatic, artistic, or architectural work).”
The aim of copyright is simple: To protect creators from having their work stolen, copied, or reproduced without their permission. As mentioned above, copyright is automatically established at the moment of a work’s creation: The creator does not need to provide a copyright notice or register their work with a copyright office. (Though registering does grant additional protection in some countries, including the right to statutory damages.)
Copyright covers a form of material expression (like a photograph) but not the ideas, techniques or facts behind the work. Here’s a good example of how this concept plays out in the real world:
“If, for example, a picture was directed very similar to the Abbey Road cover of the Beatles, where the singers are walking in a line, on a zebra crossing, dressed in contrasting formals, this might be an infringement of that copyright. Say, the suspected photograph is merely one of four men crossing a road on a zebra crossing, this would be the expression of a very common idea, not specifically the idea behind Abbey Road. However, if the photographer dressed his subjects in a similar wardrobe, shot the picture at the same angle, then this could amount to an infringement of the copyright on Abbey Road.”
Where did copyright come from?
Copyright is not a new idea. The first copyright act was signed in 1709 in the UK, and the concept of recognizing and protecting the work of creators has been important ever since. The Berne Convention of 1886 was the first international agreement on the global management of copyright. Today, the basic concept remains internationally recognized, though the degree of enforcement might differ between jurisdictions.
Though the digital age facilitates easy access to all forms of digital content, it’s important to remember that the laws have essentially remained the same around the world – copyrighted work cannot to be used without permission.
How can I use a copyrighted image?
It’s by no means impossible to use an image that is copyright protected – you just need to get a a license or other permission to use it from the creator first. In most cases, using the work either involves licensing an image through a third-party website, or contacting the creator directly. It’s also possible to transfer copyright between people. This is often done through a document signed by the copyright holder, or, in certain circumstances, an authorized agent.
There are very few instances in which a copyrighted work you find online is ‘free.’ If you can’t trace the owner of an image, choose another one. If you don’t know the provenance of the work or terms of its license (if any), you run a high risk of infringing someone’s copyright. You may have good intentions, but simply hosting someone else’s work on a website without their permission (and in some countries even linking to a copyrighted work) constitutes copyright infringement.
Who owns the copyright if I employ a contractor to create images?
If you’re employing freelancers or paying for someone to create imagery for business purposes (like a brand photoshoot), it is important to contractually establish in advance who owns the copyright to the resulting work. If, for example, there is no mention in the contract of copyright ownership being transferred to the employer, the image creator may automatically retain the copyright to any images created during the job.
What happens if I infringe someone’s copyright?
The amount of skill and craftsmanship that goes into creating intellectual property of any kind may be considerable, taking years of practice to acquire. If you commit copyright infringement (as outlined above), you could be liable to pay damages to the copyright owner.
Damages for copyright infringement vary from country to country. In the US, for example, statutory damages are set out in 17 U.S.C. § 504 of the U.S. Code. The basic level of damages for infringing the rights of a work registered with the US Copyright Office are between $750 and $30,000 per work, at the discretion of the court. If the creator of the work can prove wilful infringement, they may be entitled to damages up to $150,000 per work.
Can I use Creative Commons images?
Creative Commons is an online method of licensing images that allows image creators to stipulate how their work can be used. There are seven types of Creative Commons license: Unless an image is licensed under the license type Creative Commons Zero (CC0),’ it is still protected by copyright and will require appropriate attribution within the framework of its individual license in order to be used legally. We’ve covered that topic in depth, right here.
If you’re still unsure, find out more about how to correctly attribute images.
Do the same rules apply to social media?
Yes. While most social media platforms are based to some extent on the redistribution of content (share, retweet etc.), repurposing or reusing other’s work(s), especially for commercial gain may still be considered copyright infringement.
How can I find out who owns the copyright to a work I want to use?
If you come across a work you want to use, but it’s not obvious who the owner is, you can try searching a centralized database, which list registered works, their owners and contact details:
- USA: The US Copyright Office (Note: some other countries also use a US registered copyright registration as part of their legal process – Japan, for example.)
- Canada: The Canadian Copyrights Database.
- Australia: While there isn’t a central copyright registration database in Australia, there are bodies that can help track down a copyright owner, such as the Australian Copyright Council.
- European Union: Works do not require formal copyright registration, however, systems can vary from country to country. This site provides details on individual jurisdictions.
- United Kingdom: Intellectual Property Office.
- If you reproduce, publish or distribute a copyrighted work (or a work derived from a copyrighted work) without permission or a valid license – thats’ copyright infringement.
- If you want to use an image that’s copyright protected, first get a license or permission to use it from the creator.
- If you employ freelancers or pay for someone to create imagery, make sure you contractually establish in advance who owns the copyright to the resulting work.
- If you commit copyright infringement, you could be liable to pay damages to the copyright owner.
- Creative Commons images are protected by copyright and require appropriate attribution.
- Repurposing or reusing work on social media can still be considered copyright infringement.
- Many countries have a centralized database you can use to identify image owners.