Image copyright is something you, as a web publisher, need to take into account. It’s amazing how many site owners don’t even know they need to consider it. It’s one of those things that not knowing about can be a big problem.
A friend of mine got an email from an attorney for one of the big stock photo sources. It seems she had a photo of theirs on her site, and they wanted $700 for past-due royalties. I’ve heard of people getting demands for $7,000 and up.
If that happened to you, you would have several options. You can pay up. You can get an attorney. You can apologize, take the photo down, and ask them to reduce their fee (which my friend did).
No matter which course you take, though, it’s expensive and stressful — and unnecessary.
The best way to handle image copyright is to honor copyrights and use images with permission. That’s not as hard as it might seem. Simply choose your sources and be aware.
Image Copyright Basics
Copyright is the law that governs intellectual property. Even though I’m talking about image copyright here, it’s the same that protects video, text, music, photography and hand-made art. It provides that creators own their work and get to decide how it’s used.
Copyright law differs from country to country. In the United States, the Copyright Law gives the owner the right to make decisions about whether an image is
- Displayed publicly
- Changed for another purpose
You’ll find three general categories of copyright protection in the United States.
If an image is in the public domain, its copyright is expired, forfeited, expressly waived, or inapplicable (Wikipedia). In the United States, most images from before 1923 are in the public domain. After that, movement into the public domain becomes a series of “if, then” statements. (There’s a fascinating story about how It’s a Wonderful Life accidentally fell into the public domain, and thus went from failure to movie classic. But it’s off-topic for this post.)
For some people, keeping too close a rein on their copyright means that their creations never see the light of day. Creative Commons was founded in 2001 and set out the parameters for some licenses that give people the right to use work, under certain conditions, without taking away the creator’s ownership.
The licenses allow copyright owners to set the following controls over their content:
- Attribution: You can do anything with the work including making money from it, but you need to give the creator credit.
- Attribution-ShareAlike: You can modify the work, but you have to credit the original creator, and you must distribute it under the same terms you received it.
- Attribution-NoDerivs: You can use and distribute the work, even commercially, but you can’t change it.
- Attribution-NonCommercial: You can modify the work as long as you give credit to the creator and don’t make money off it.
- Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike: You must credit the creator, not make money from it, and license the new creation under the same terms.
- Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs: You may use the work as is, without changing it, not make money from it, and give credit to the original creator.
There’s also a CC0 license that essentially means the artist has released the work into the public domain.
For your business, look for images that allow commercial use and expect to give credit to the creator.
If you’re going to crop the image or add text or any other modification, then stay away from the NoDerivs licenses.
All Rights Reserved
The owner has claimed the copyright, and you need permission to use the image. It may be easy to get, as with a stock photo service. Or it may be hard, such as if you see a photo somewhere and need to contact the owner to ask permission. It may be cheap, as little as a dollar a photo or an inexpensive monthly plan, or it may be expensive.
But the creator owns it, and the creator gets to say who uses it and how.
Now that you know what kind of rights we’re talking about, here are some places to get images within your budget.
1. Take the Photo Yourself
If you’re like most people, you walk around with an advanced, easy-to-use camera in your pocket. It’s not as easy as it looks, and I’ve got the blurry, out-of-focus pictures to prove it. But if you want unique photos that you absolutely don’t owe anyone anything for, that’s your best option.
2. Do-It-Yourself Graphics
If you create it yourself, you own the copyright. Your images can be as simple as well-chosen words on a colored background or as complicated as a set of (properly licensed) images in an elaborate collage. Or anything in between.
You can use some of the Adobe products (PhotoShop, Illustrator, InDesign), but for the average user, they’re expensive, time-consuming to learn, and with too many capabilities for what you really need. If you’re a professional graphics designer, these are great tools, but if you’re a professional graphics designer, this blot post really doesn’t have anything new for you.
If you want something light, quick, and easy, check out Canva.com. There are templates for all the social media sites, so you don’t have to look up the dimensions. There are free graphics and a variety of fonts. You can also upload images you shot yourself or that you got from some other source. There are also some paid graphics that cost $1 each, so you can go wild and not break the bank.
It’s an easy, intuitive interface, so you can figure it out on the first try.
3. Public Domain and Creative Commons
There are some limitations on use of public domain images. If there’s a person in the photo, it may be complicated. (Here’s a blog post summarizing some things to consider when using public domain images.
Nevertheless, you can find some usable images that illustrate what you’re trying to say.
Most of the images on Wikipedia.org are in the public domain. Each one is clearly marked for licensing, so you know exactly what’s permissable and how to credit it.
An adjunct to Wikipedia is Wikimedia Commons Each picture gives you a formatted credit link.
Some sources for Creative Commons images are these:
- Creative Commons offers has a way to search many image sources at one time.
- Flickr is an image-sharing site that attracts all skill levels. If you go to Compfight.com, you can easily filter the results for the license you need. Just put your search term in the box on the home page, and on the next page under license, click Creative Commons or Commercial. I recommend Commercial for a business site.
- Pixabay offers CC0 images. Free to use, but they invite donations.
- Unsplash has beautiful free images. Attribution is suggested but not required.
- Google Image Search can be a great source of Creative Commons images if you know how to look. Search for your term, then on the search results page click Images. Then click Tools. That will reveal a dropdown menu with Usage Rights. Use “Labeled for reuse.” Be sure to check the usage information for any image you’re interested in using.
4. Stock Photos
Stock photo sites buy pictures from professional photographers. The best-known and most expensive is iStockPhoto/Getty Images. There, you can expect to pay $11 per image and up. You can probably get a better price if you buy a subscription, but it’s not an affordable option for many smaller businesses.
My go-to sites are StockUnlimited.com and DepositPhotos.com. I got really good deals through AppSumo (affiliate link) that may or may not come around again, but I find good, interesting photos there for almost every need.
There are a number of sites: Shutterstock, Dreamstime, Bigstock. If you use photos often, you might want to go with a batch purchase or subscription. If not, buying one at a time may be your best option.
Image Copyright Karma
I know it’s a pain to have to pay for images, but visual artists need deserve to get paid for their work.
Alex Wild, an insect photographer, eventually decided to get a day job, because he was spending so much time pursuing copyright violations of his work. A recent update is that he’s pursuing a $2.8 million lawsuit against a flagrant violator.
If you take copyright into account when choosing your images, you won’t have to get the dreaded Copyright Infringement Cease and Desist Letter. And if you do get one (mistakes happen), all you have to do is show your receipt.
If you have copyrighted images on your site and haven’t been caught yet, thank your lucky stars and take them down.
Bottom line: Don’t use an image without observing the image copyright.
- Copyright sign: DepositPhotos.com
- Photographer 1850s: Wikipedia
- Photographer 2017: Point & Shoot, by Alex Iby, on Unsplash
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