Images are critical for inbound marketing and, indeed, for practically all online communication. You learned in school that you can’t just plagiarize any old material for your homework. The same idea holds for images on the web. Yet, the democratic nature of the internet can give a false sense of security that anything is available for use. Learn how to use photos legally online or you could run into problems.
Before you use an image online, know what you’re doing. There’s a good chance the image is copyrighted. And, copyright holders are not required to send you a cease and desist order before they pursue legal action. That means you could be blindsided.
How to Know if an Image is Copyrighted
Assume that it is. When you upload a photo to the web, you don’t have to mark it with a copyright symbol to own it. According to Lifehacker, “Indeed, every one of those selfies with duck lips on Instagram is subject to copyright, as is that photo of a flower (or cloudscape, animal, cocktail, etc.) that would go great on your blog.” Look for information that specifies the image is NOT copyrighted. We’ll give you some ways to do that below.
How to Find Usable Images with Google
Google makes so many resources readily accessible to anyone and everyone, it can feel like a smorgasbord of free stuff. It’s not. It’s simply a directory of where to find stuff, and that stuff belongs to whoever put it on the web. However, Google allows you to filter your image search results to know what you can actually use.
Type your search terms into Google. When the results appear choose “images” from the menu at the top. Then, click “search tools.” This will open a sub-menu. Click the down arrow beside “usage rights” and you will see another menu. Choose the relevant item from the list. You’ll need to consider whether you plan to modify the image in any way, and whether you plan to profit from it.
Once you have your filtered results, click the one you want. It’s best to click “visit page” and download the image from its source page. This will give you a chance to check out the source and see exactly what you’re dealing with. If the source is a photo sharing site, like Flickr, carefully read the usage information for the image and follow instructions.
How to Use Public Domain Images
As a content manager, my two favorite words are “public domain.” Fortunately, the web teems with public domain images. You just have to find them. Start by using the Google search technique above. Additionally, check sites that specifically curate free-to-use images. Examples include Morguefile and Pixabay and Pexels . Note that some of these sites also offer photos that are not free to use. The ones available for purchase should be watermarked, but use caution.
There’s a “but.” Just because an image is public domain doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want with it. It is always wise to cite the source of an image. And, you must consider any human faces that appear in the photo. Check that no additional permission is needed from them, especially if a child is included. (Fun fact: Photos taken of Federal U.S. employees while working — from the postal carrier to the POTUS — are public domain.)
How to Use Your Own Photos
It sounds pretty simple; you take it, you own it. However, suppose you’re not an experienced photographer. Just because everyone has a camera in their pocket these days doesn’t mean they’re all experts with lighting, composition, and other elements of quality photography. If you hire someone to take photos for a certain use, let’s say your website, agree up front on the terms. Can you use the photos elsewhere and for as long as you want? What if the photographer wants to use them for other purposes? Can he or she sell them to other users? Likewise, if you are the photographer, clarify whether you are permitted to use the photos yourself or whether you are only providing them for the client.
Even if you take the photos, you need to consider who is in them! You have certain legal obligations with regard to using someone’s likeness, especially if that person is a minor. A first step is to ask the model or the model’s legal guardian to sign a release. But this may not be enough. Depending on your situation, using models may warrant legal advice.
Also use caution about product names and logos. To be completely safe, never have a product logo visible in your photos or videos. This includes team names on hats and shirts, labels on food and drinks, and even the apple on top of your laptop. Cover or avoid them completely. If they must remain, clone or blur them out in Photoshop before posting the photo. (Once you become sensitive to this consideration you will notice it on television all the time!)
How to Use Stock Photos Correctly
If you use a lot of photos, you should consider paying for a subscription to a stock photo resource like Shutterfly or iStock. Hubspot offers this list of free stock photo sites.
There’s a difference between free to download and royalty-free. Some photos you buy once and can use them in perpetuity. Some you have to pay according to how you’re using it, whether in print or online, how many people will see it, what size it will be, etc. The latter can be much more costly. But, the perfect photo is sometimes worth the investment.
How to Properly Credit a Copyright Holder
As explained by Lifehacker, “Taking another person’s image or graphic and giving them a “shout out,” linkback, or any other type of attribution does not negate copyright infringement. Common sense may say that an artist wants exposure for their work, but we’re talking about the law here and common sense doesn’t always parallel.” Again, read the fine print. If the creator is using a Creative Commons license, something you will commonly see on Flickr or Creative Commons, read the license. You will need to provide a link to it on your site.
Regardless of where you get your image, review the details regarding whether the creator permits changing the image. You may want to crop it, add text, or clone out certain details.
In conclusion, read the fine print. It may sound boring, but if your idea of excitement is getting sued, you may be in the wrong line of work. Learn as much as you can about proper use of images, and keep up with changes. You’ll rest easier knowing that you’re using the best images in a responsible manner.