March 21, 2018

What to do after using an image without permission

Timmy Blue Downside Up
Image by Randy Jacob

Using copyrighted work without permission can have serious repercussions – but the situation can often be smoothly resolved. By contacting the image creator or their representative and arranging to license their work, it may well be possible to continue using the image and avoid costly legal proceedings.

Finding out you’ve used an image without permission

There are a number of ways you might discover you’ve used an image without authorization, including:

  • You undertake a website audit that reveals license agreements are missing or out of date.
  • You receive a notification from the image creator.
  • You receive a takedown notice.
  • You receive a notification from a law firm.
  • You receive a license fee notification from an image protection service, like Pixsy.

However you find out, it’s important to act quickly after being notified of unauthorized image use.

Identify the owner of the image

If you realize you’ve used a copyrighted work without a valid license, and have not yet received any notification from the owner or a representative, it’s best to find and contact the image owner. When reaching out to the image creator, keep in mind that it may be necessary to correspond with their agent or lawyer, particularly if initial contact was made through them.

Google’s reverse image search is usually sufficient to track down an image's owner. Right click on the image and select the option ‘Search Google for Image.’ Alternatively, paste in the location (URL) of the image, or upload it here. In many cases, creators will have their own portfolio websites, which should include their contact information.

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

Purchase a license

Paying a license fee to the creator helps resolve the issue smoothly, allowing you to continue using the image and avoid the legal costs of escalation. To negotiate a license, you’ll need to determine the following:

  • Intended use period (including the time the work has already been used).
  • The size of the published image (pixel measurement).
  • The geographic factors of use (local, national, international).
  • Intended use type – commercial, personal, editorial, etc.
  • 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.

The image owner may also ask for additional information to complete licensing terms.

Correctly attribute

When contacting an image creator about licensing their work, make sure you clarify attribution across 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 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, take into account the inherent value of the work in question. Photographers and other visual artists are skilled professionals and should be treated as such. They probably make a living by licensing their work, and a significant amount of time, resources, and expertise goes into every single image they create. Fair pay for fair work.

Going forward

To prevent the situation from happening again, especially in a company, implement and maintain an image management system, and take steps to clearly communicate best practice. Find out more about what to do when employees use copyrighted work without permission.



  • If you discover you’ve used an image without authorization, contact the image owner and negotiate license terms to buy (or otherwise obtain) usage rights.
  • 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.
  • When agreeing license terms, clarify with the creator how they would like their work to be attributed.
  • Keep a well-maintained image management system and implement best practices to make sure unauthorized use doesn’t happen again.

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