Photo by Alex Suprun
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 expressed permission or license from 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 image copyright?
The short answer: if you created the given work, you own the image’s copyright.
The longer version: 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. The creator does not need to provide a copyright notice or register their work with a copyright office. (Though a copyright notice can be useful in online image protection and registering does grant additional protection in some countries, including the right to statutory damages.)
According to the Copyright Law of the United States, the copyright owner of an image has exclusive rights to:
- Reproduce the copyrighted work in copies.
- Create derivative works upon the copyrighted object.
- Sell or distribute copies of the copyrighted work.
- Display the copyrighted work publicly.
Therefore, the aim of copyright is simple: to protect creators from having their work displayed, stolen, copied, or reproduced without their permission.
It’s also good to know that 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:
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.
While the digital age facilitates easy access to all forms of digital content, it’s important to remember that copyright laws have essentially remained the same around the world – copyrighted work cannot 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 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.
Let’s see the most common examples of how you can legally use images.
1. Paid licensing
A licensing fee is paid to use the image. The type of licensing can vary, controlled by the copyright owner. Restrictions may apply to editorial or commercial use, and platform-based limitations are common as well, regarding online or offline use. All details should be set in the agreement between the image owner or copyright owner and the future image user, or the process can take place on stock photo platforms, as well.
2. Fair use
In the case of fair use, the copyrighted picture can only be used for educational, personal or research purposes, or if it’s beneficial to the public. However, determining what can fall under this category is not necessarily easy for an everyday image user as there are a number of factors that go into consideration under the framework of the U.S. Copyright Act.
3. Creative Commons (CC)
Under a Creative Commons license, the copyright owner allows use and distribution to image users under certain conditions. In most cases, giving image credit properly is key, but first and most of all, image users must get acquainted with the types and rules of the different CC licenses.
4. Public domain
When an image belongs to the public domain, it means that it is not subject to copyright. Common cases are when the owner of the work passed away or abandoned all rights to the work. However, crediting the picture might still be needed based on what the requirements are, for example in the case of the Getty Search Gateway project.
Therefore, never simply assume that something publicly available, such as photographs on Instagram, are public domain. The term can be misleading so be extra vigilant and contact the owner for details.
Are all images copyrighted?
Images may be subject to copyright – you have surely encountered this statement before. It is a good reminder that there are very few instances in which a work you find online is ‘copyright free’. As discussed above, this is the case for two main reasons. Every work is copyrighted from the moment of its creation and there are particularly rare cases where that is not true. One of those can be public domain images, but confirming that is also the image user’s liability, as mentioned above.
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 creator may automatically retain the copyright to any images created during the job.
Who owns the copyright if I create an image as an employee?
If you are employed at a company, any assets you create, including images and photographs as part of your job, belong to the firm, in other words, the employer owns the copyright to these works. Similarly, the use of that image outside your day job might depend on your employer, too. For all parties involved, it’s important that employees receive information or even specific training about proper image use at work to prevent copyright infringement cases for their employers.
What happens if I infringe someone’s copyright?
If you commit copyright infringement, you could be liable to pay damages to the copyright owner. The damages can be measured based on the amount of skill and craftsmanship that goes into creating an intellectual property which may be considerable, taking years of practice to acquire.
Established 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 is 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?
Yes, but it’s important to know that there are seven types of Creative Commons license: unless an image is licensed under ‘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. If you’re still unsure, find out more about how to correctly attribute Creative Commons images.
Do the same copyright 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.
You cannot ‘simply’ embed an Instagram post on your website without a permission, for instance. Make sure you get familiar with each site’s copyright terms and conditions.
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 lists 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: There is no copyright registration system in the UK, so there is no way to search but you may contact the Intellectual Property Office for help.
You can check the copyright owner of an image in many other ways, including looking into the file’s metadata or doing a reverse image search — it’s always worth looking into your options. After that, it’s crucial that you contact the copyright owner and discuss what permission may be granted to you regarding image use.
- If you reproduce, publish or distribute a copyrighted work (or a work derived from a copyrighted work) without permission or a valid license – that’s 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.
- ‘Copyright free’ images are very rare — confirming that is your liability as an image user.
- 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 create an image as an employee, the copyright to that work belongs to your employer.
- If you commit copyright infringement, you could be liable to pay damages to the copyright owner.
- Technically, all 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.