The Essential Guide to Using Images Legally Online

Images are key for making your content shine online.

Whether you’re creating a blog post, webpage, ebook or any other piece of content, adding visuals improves the overall user experience.

You can’t, however, just pull images off the internet – it’s your responsibility to determine if and how you can use the image without violating copyright.

Every image – whether you find it on Google, social media or on a stock photo site – gains copyright as soon as it’s created, and it’s up to you to know whether or not you have legal right to use it.

The consequences of violating copyright (even accidentally) are serious.

Those found guilty of copyright violation could face charges up to $150,000 for each infringement.

Should a case go to trial, a party found guilty of copyright infringement is also responsible for all attorney fees and court costs.

That’s not all – the court has the right to impound any work containing the copyright violation, and in extreme cases, the copyright infringer can face jail time.

Discover six types of images and how to use them online.

1. Use Public Domain Images (a.k.a. ‘No Copyright’ Images)

Public Domain images have no copyright because:

  • The copyright has expired.
  • The work never had copyright to begin with.
  • The copyright holder released the work into the public domain.
  • The image is a U.S. work published before January 1, 1924.

Copyright-free images will have the Public Domain Mark 1.0 or the CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Mark.

Public domain images do not require any citation.

You can obtain public domain images on sites like Wikimedia Commons and Flickr Commons.

2. Use Creative Commons Images

Another great (and free) source of photos are images with Creative Commons licenses.

The Creative Commons license gives photographers the ability to release their photos to the public, while still retaining some control over how they are used.

All photos with a Creative Commons license fall into two categories:

  • Those that allow commercial use.
  • Those that don’t.

Commercial use is defined as use that is “primarily intended for commercial advantage or monetary compensation.”

That compensation, however, can be direct on indirect – therefore, if you’re using an image in a blog post or on a webpage that is affiliated with a for-profit company, the use is commercial.

To that end, only use Creative Commons photos that are allowed for commercial use.

If you work for a for-profit company, do not use Creative Commons photos that do not allow commercial use.

Beyond that, photos with a CC license can have other stipulations you must adhere to including:

  • Attribution: This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon the creator’s work as long as they credit the creator for the original creation.
  • Attribution-ShareAlike: This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon the creator’s work as long as they credit the creator and license their new creations under the identical terms.
  • Attribution-ShareAlike No Derivatives: This license allows for redistribution of an image as long as the image remains unchanged and is credited to the creator.

As you search through the Creative Commons, you can filter your search to find images that can be used commercially and/or modified.

3. Use Stock Photos

Stock photos are photos that creators license out to anyone who is willing to pay their licensing fee.

Buying a license gives you the right to use the photo in any way prescribed by the licensing agreement.

The main advantage of stock photo sites is that they contain a massive number of pictures that are relevant to almost any niche – and because stock photographers are pros, the quality is typically high.

It’s important to note, however, that even stock photos come with some stipulations.

For example, certain photos are used for “editorial use only” – in these instances, you can use the photo for a publication like a newsletter or a blog, but you can’t use the photo for a Facebook ad or a corporate home page.

Always read the licensing agreement thoroughly.

4. Use Your Own Images

Another option is taking your own photos.

If you’re the photographer, there’s no danger of violating any copyright.

Plus, the photos will be entirely original – fresh content for the win!

And no, you don’t need to go out and buy a professional camera – most of today’s smartphones have cameras that are on par with a DSLR.

To make your pictures look professional, make sure to consider lighting and background framing.

Alternatively, you could hire someone to take a set of images for you – just make sure your exclusive rights to the photos are implicit in the contract.

5. Use Social Media Images Only with Permission

Images appearing on social media are no different than any other image you’ll find online, in that you must act responsibly and ask for permission.

It’s common to see people “regram” or embed social media images into their own content, but that doesn’t make it legal.

Take Instagram, for example – the terms of service clearly state the copyright of any Instagram image belongs to the poster.

If you use social media content without permission it could result in legal action – and for a small business, the legal fees and judgment could be crippling.

Always err on the side of caution.

Let’s say you have a customer that posted an amazing image of your product on Instagram and you’d like to use it – sending a simple direct message (or leaving a comment) asking for permission is quick and easy, and will protect you – and chances are you’ll get a yes.

6. Avoid Using GIFs

While it’s true that GIFs abound throughout online content, that doesn’t mean their use is legal.

It can be argued that GIFs fall under the doctrine of fair use.

The doctrine of fair use holds that copyrighted work can be used in certain cases.

For example, a search engine showing an image that you searched for would be an example of fair use.

Another example of fair use would be a teacher distributing materials including copyrighted material as part of the coursework, or news coverage of copyrighted material.

Fair use also extends to works that are a “transformative” use of the original work – the argument for GIFs, then, would be that a brief, looping clip of a movie is not representative of the entire film and therefore do not undermine the value of the work as a whole.

Technically, if you wanted to be operating entirely without risk, you would need written releases from the copyright holder of the original work and the people who appear in the GIF – and that sounds like a lot of effort for something that will probably amount to a dead end.

You could get away with it, but why risk it?

Just because everyone’s doing it does not make it legal, and if you use a GIF you could get slapped with a cease and desist order – or worse.

It just isn’t worth it, especially when you there are copyright-free images, Creative Commons images, stock photos, etc. at your disposal!

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