Five ways to verify an image and identify the copyright owner

Photo by Dominik Martin: CC0

The online world is awash with beautiful pictures. While it can be tempting to use these images, it’s important to remember that it may constitute copyright infringement – an act that can have serious legal and financial repercussions.

That doesn’t mean that the Internet’s images are off limits; merely that before using an image, you need to verify its original source, confirm whether or you’re allowed to use it, and the terms involved in doing so.

It may be, for example, that you can use the image under a specific Creative Commons license, and have to include clear information about its creator. Or, you might need to contact the owner to purchase a license to use the image.

Before proceeding, however, the first step is to ascertain the correct owner of an image, and there are a number of ways to do this. Here’s our handy five step guide:

1. Look for an image credit or contact details 

If you find an image online, look carefully for a caption that includes the name of the image creator or copyright owner. There may also be an email address or link to the image owner’s website. Using that info, you can contact the image owner to request to use their image by purchasing a license or coming to an agreement on the terms of use.

2. Look for a watermark

A watermark in an image is a clear sign that the image is copyrighted. Often, the watermark will contain text that indicates the name or company to whom the image belongs: Do some Googling and find out.

Under no circumstances should you attempt to use software to strip the image of its watermark. This demonstrates clear and wilful intent to infringe copyright – evidence which will likely work against you should the case come before a court of law.

3. Check the image’s metadata

Some image creators embed crucial information about their images into the file’s metadata (also known as EXIF data). It’s easy to access this information from your Mac or PC desktop; here are step by step instructions.

4. Do a Google reverse image search

If you still can’t find details of the image owner, Google’s reverse image search is a useful tool. Simply upload the file or paste the image link into http://images.google.com and follow the results to see where else the image lives online. From there, you should be able to ascertain ownership information.

If you work with a large volume of images and would like to regularly look for sources, you could consider a service like Pixsy.

5. If in doubt, don’t use it

To protect their livelihood, copyright owners often actively monitor for cases of unauthorized use of their work. If you’ve taken all of the above steps and are still unable to fully verify the source of the image and identify the copyright owner, simply do not use the image. There are plenty of high-quality image banks available that offer an easy way to access and use images for all different specifications and budgets. There’s simply no excuse for infringing copyright, and the consequences could well be expensive and unpleasant.

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tl;dr

  • Before using an image, you need to verify its original source, confirm whether or you’re allowed to use it, and the terms involved in doing so.
  • Look for clues in the image caption, check for a watermark and see if the image has copyright details in its metadata.
  • Contact the image owner to purchase a license or agree terms of use.
  • If you still can’t verify the image’s source, try using Google’s reverse image search tool.
  • To protect their livelihood, copyright owners often actively monitor for cases of unauthorized use of their work.
  • If you’re still in any doubt about the owner or whether you can use the image, simply don’t.

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