Timmy Blue Downside Up, by Randy Jacob, CC0

What to do after using an image without permission

Image: Randy Jacob, CC0


Using copyrighted work without permission can have serious repercussions. Our guide provides details on what to do after being made aware of unauthorized image use, and advice on how to solve the situation.

There are a number of ways in which unauthorized image use can be brought to the attention of an image user. They may realize themselves, or:

  • A website audit may show license agreements are missing or out of date
  • Receive a notification from the image creator
  • Receive a legally compliant takedown notice
  • Receive a notification from a law firm
  • Through a license fee notification from an image protection service, like Pixsy.

Regardless of the situation, it is important to act quickly after being notified of unauthorized image use. Here are four steps to follow.

Identify the owner of the image

If there is not a valid license held for the copyrighted work in question (and a notification from the image owner or representative, in any form, has not been received), it is best to find and contact the image owner. Google’s reverse image search functionality will suffice in most cases. To do this, right click on the image and select the option ‘Search Google for Image,’

Alternatively, paste in the location (URL) of the image, or upload the image, here.

In many cases, creators will have their own portfolio websites, which should include their contact information.

Another way to easily identify the creator of a work is to check if there is EXIF metadata embedded into the image. Many creators will frequently embed their copyright management information, including contact information, into an image’s metadata. Submit an image URL or upload an image into an online EXIF Data Viewer, to check.

When reaching out to the image creator, keep in mind that correspondence with the creator’s agent or lawyer may be necessary. If initial contact was made through an agent or lawyer, it may be necessary to correspond with the creator through them.

Purchase a license

To negotiate a license, the following information is required:

  • Intended use period (including the period the work has already been used in)
  • The size of the published image (pixel measurement)
  • The geographic factors of use (whether local, national, international)
  • Intended use type – commercial use, personal use, editorial use or other common use type…
  • Whether the use is online or offline (or both)
  • Whether or not attribution is required / intended
  • Whether or not any changes are to be made to the image
  • Whether or not industry exclusivity of the image is required

Upon request, the image owner may ask for additional information to complete licensing terms.

Correctly attribute

When contacting an image creator about licensing terms for their work, it is important to make sure correct attribution is agreed upon, in all applicable media formats. For example, ask the photographer how they would like to be acknowledged on social media, as they may have an account which is specific to their business that should be tagged in a post. When purchasing a license for an image, attribution is usually (and should really be) defined within the terms of use.

Learn more about correct image attribution.

Understand the value

When determining a license fee, being able to appreciate the inherent value of the work and images in question is important. It is best practice to adopt the principle of fair pay for fair work. Photographers and other visual artists are skilled professionals and should be treated as such. Their living may be made by licensing their work, and a significant amount of time, resources, and expertise goes into the creation of every single image they create.  

Going forward

To prevent unauthorized image use from happening again, it is important to maintain a high level of quality in image management, especially within a commercial business or other place of work. A well audited content management system as well as enforcing knowledge of copyright best practice within a company are effective ways of doing this.

Find out more about what to do when employees use copyrighted work without permission.

Upon receiving a notice of unauthorized image use, act swiftly to resolve it. By contacting the image creator or their representative and arranging to license their work, it may well be possible to continue using the image legally and avoid the possibility of costly legal proceedings.

Key Takeouts

  1. Keep a well-maintained content management system, making sure that all published images have a valid license and are legitimate uses of work.
  2. Upon discovering use of an image without authorization, contact the image owner and negotiate license terms to buy (or otherwise have) usage rights to it..
  3. When contacted by an image’s owner about unauthorized use of their work, handle the situation calmly and with respect. Remember – fair pay for fair work.
  4. Define correct attribution within the terms of use of an image, with the image’s creator.
  5. Stick to the best practices outlined here to make certain that cases of unauthorized use don’t happen again.