This post discusses the copyright implications of using images found through an online search engine such as Google. In general, you should assume that all images you want to use are protected by copyright unless and until you find out otherwise.
Have You Found the Perfect Image on Google?
How many times have you used Google or another search engine and found the perfect image, illustration or photograph?
As tempting as it is to copy and paste that image on your blog or elsewhere, and perhaps even manipulate it for your purposes, you need to consider copyright law before doing so.
Google is a search engine that helps you locate content such as images and photos. It is not a content depository, and it is not a collection of public domain or copyright-free works. Google directs you to images and photos and other online content according to your search criteria. Once you find that perfect image or photo, you must treat that image like any other content you find online.
It is always prudent to start by assuming that the image is protected by copyright law in your own country and around the world. Then do your research. Take the necessary effort and steps to determine if the image is protected by copyright and if so, get permission to use it before you use it.
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Assume that Online Content is Protected by Copyright
To start your research, you should assume that all online images are protected by copyright. If you’re lucky, the copyright owner’s name will be on the image and there will be a link you can click on to contact the copyright owner and ask for permission. And of course the copyright owner will promptly reply. But this best case scenario will not always be the scenario you are facing.
It may take time and effort and creativity in your research to determine the name of the copyright owner, then you’ll need to investigate whether they are still alive and when the duration of copyright will expire or whether it has expired.
In some circumstances, your research will reveal that your use of it does not require permission. For example, images and photographs in the public domain do not require permission.
Is there a Creative Commons (CC) license attached to the image or photograph that permits limited or unlimited use of that image without communicating with the copyright owner?
When you are using images you find online (or elsewhere), keep in mind the following factors:
- determining whether an image or photograph or other content is protected by copyright or not may take time. Begin your research as early as possible – as soon as you decide you want to use a certain image or photograph.
- act on facts and don’t just think an “old” photo is free for the taking or an image without a copyright symbol or notice is always free to use.
- if you do not see permission clearly indicated on an image or photograph, then you need to investigate the copyright status of it and determine whether you need to obtain permission prior to using the image or photo.
5 Copyright Tips and Best Practices for Legally Use Images
- Copyright-wise, it’s always less risky to link to a legal photo or other image than it is to copy and paste that image onto your website or social media platform.
- When possible, use photos and other images that you’ve taken yourself. Unless you’re employed and took the photos as part of your job, you own the copyright in your own photos. (Don’t forget to obtain a model release from any persons in your photographs. This isn’t a copyright issue, but is a privacy/publicity issue.)
- Use images that have a Creative Commons (CC) license. However, be aware that a CC license is just that: a license. You need to read its terms and conditions and see what’s allowed or not. Not all CC licenses allow the same uses. A CC license may allow use as-is, or in a remix or as part of a new work, and in most cases requires attribution of the copyright owner.
- Purchase images from stock photo agencies and follow the license terms; you’re not outright buying the image from a stock agency, but are paying for certain uses of it. Read the specific terms and conditions (to which you have agreed). For example, you may be able to post the image on your website but you may require additional permission to use the image on the front cover of a print book.
- When you seek permission from the copyright owner of an image, always ask first if they actually own the copyright in the image. The image’s creator may have assigned their rights to someone else, or the photographs or other images may have been created at work as part of the creator’s employment duties. In these latter cases, the photographers or other image creators do not have the right to provide you with permission to use their work.
See our practically oriented online copyright courses including our Legally Using Images eTutorial
For more tips on using images, see our article, Legally Using Images