Copyright extends to all images on the internet
Pixabay image of a copyright symbol as a bomb (free use)

You wouldn’t visit a greengrocers, take an apple from the counter and walk out, without paying. You were brought up better than that, I suspect. Yet thousands of business people steal photographs from online sources every day and think nothing of it.

‘Photography found on Google is in the public domain’, I’ve heard it said (many times) but that is simply not true. All images, wherever you find them, are subject to copyright. This is an automatic right awarded to all images, taken by any person on any format of capturing device and presented in physical and digital form, no matter what its artistic merit. All photography is an ‘original work of authorship’. These are part of a class of works that includes literary, dramatic, musical and artistic materials.

Copyright is on any of these works from the moment they are created by the artist and lasts for 70 years beyond that artist’s death. Copyright exists and is respected in all countries – in theory – so you can pretty much expect that any digital image you find online is covered by copyright. So what? What is the upshot of nicking photography for your blog post that you don’t own or haven’t licenced?

$8000 for one blog website. It used an ‘underwhelming’ shot of Omaha, Nebraska for a single post that less than 100 people read. They didn’t have a license to use the image and when the ‘artist’ found out, appointed a specialist law firm to chase for the infringement. Eventually, after appointing its own lawyer, the agreed penalties reduced to $3000.

Here’s some other facts about this case: The ‘artist’ is not a photographer and the image was most likely taken on a smart phone’s camera. The infringement was an accident, but that cut no mustard. The blog site took the photo down as soon as the letter to sue them arrived, but again the damage was already done.

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This case was in the litigious US, so could it happen it the UK? Yes it could – and did. Take the case of the church in Lichfield where a volunteer used a couple of images from Getty’s catalogue without paying for the licences. Ka-Ching! that’s a £6000 penalty thank you very much!

Getty doesn’t always get it right though: Photographer Daniel Morel was on the island of Haiti in 2010 when the earthquake hit. This experienced photo journalist was shocked when he found an image he posted to Twitter had been appropriated by Getty Images and Agence France-Presse which were then selling the image to news organisations. Morel sued and won $1.2m in damages.

Read more here:

Its an expensive business to use an image without knowing where it originates. So how can you ensure you don’t get caught out? (A word of caution. I am not a lawyer and these suggestions are not legal advice)

Originate your own images is the safest option; taking your own photos or by working with a professional photographer that will license images to your business. Using an employee as a photographer usually means you will own the copyright to the works, providing that employee carries out the tasks during his/her normal working hours and as part of their normal role (ie, a marketing manager, but possibly not a part-time stock control clerk)

Professional photographers, myself included, that are commissioned by businesses, generally assign the rights to images under licence. For the right price (negotiated with the photographer) businesses may have the copyright of images assigned to them.

A word of caution however. Image rights management is essentially an area of contract law, so ensure you know how you may use the images you have commissioned. You still don’t own them if the photographer is a freelance and you certainly will not have an automatic right to sell them to third parties with most licences.

Another option is to use stock images from libraries. Many stock libraries have free or very low costs for images, particularly if they are only intended for digital use. The image rights management for stock falls into three broad categories, so make sure you choose a stock library that is right for you. The first is free to use images with no cost. These are still copyright but there are few restrictions on use. As long as you do not try to resell these images, you can do pretty much what you like that is legal, decent, honest and true. You may find that the images are marked ‘Creative Commons’. This denotes how the images may be used. Some specify they are not to be used for commercial projects. Others may specify that you cannot manipulate the shots and combine them with other images.

The two other categories are rights managed and royalty free. The latter is the most commonly used and for a small fee – anywhere between a few quid to around £50 – you are free to use the images for specific purposes and usually for as long as you wish. The cost may vary according to the usage – digital only or used for printing/advertising – so check which type you require before you make your choice.

Rights Managed images have restrictions on their use ranging from the timescale, to the audience likely to see them. If you intend using the RM image as part of an advert in a high circulation magazine, you will pay more for the image than if you are using it for a leaflet. If you intend to run that advert for two years rather than three months, prepare to pay more again. Once you purchase the rights for your usage, you may renegotiate and extend the use, but if you use the material outside of the terms of your agreement, you will open your organisation to fines from the image management company.

All images are covered by copyright and as such you need to take care when sourcing photos from the internet or face fines for copyright infringement. Originating your own images prevents many of these issues, but you can use images from stock libraries too, providing you stick to the terms of use for images you source from them.