Images and Copyright

by classicalgeek

It is your responsibility to make sure that you have the rights to the images you use. Otherwise, you could end up with a lawsuit!

Last week, a very close friend of mine called me in a panic, because she had been sued for using an image she received in email on her blog. She had not bothered to inform herself about copyright law as it applies to images, and naively assumed that if she did not see a watermark or a copyright notice, she would be able to use an image.

Not only was she named in the lawsuit, but the person from whom she leases her office was named, too! And of course, even though she is my dear friend, she went into a rant about how the law sucks, and it's stupid, and people are not informed, and all that, but in the United States, "ignorance of the law is no excuse." So before you use an image in anything you publish, whether it be an email, a blog post, an article, or something else, you need to ensure you have the right to use that image, or you, too, could wind up in court with absolutely no legal defense.

[Thumbnail image licensed for commercial use from HubSpot]

Have You Ever Broken Copyright Law?

Isn't It Enough to Give Credit?

Many people mistakenly assume it is enough to use an image, and either to give credit, or link back to the author, or perhaps they feel generous, and do both. However, if you think about it, would you want someone to take something you had written, and copy it word for word, using it to make money, and then simply say, "Oh, I got this from so-and so." Probably not!

In the same way, an image is copyrighted from the moment the camera shutter clicks. Unless you take that image yourself, you do not have the right to use it (except for specific instances, which we'll get to in a minute). Simply giving credit, especially to "Google Images," will land you in all kinds of trouble!

"It says, 'All photographic-reproduction rights reserved by National Geogr…" - New Yorker Cartoon
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What about Creative Commons?

Aren't those free to use?

Creative Commons licenses are not necessarily free to use. While the creator of an image allows the image to be used under certain conditions with a Creative Commons license, you must understand the rights and obligations of the different Creative Commons licenses.

Attribution means that you must give credit in the way that the copyright holder specifies. Often, you must email the creator of the image to ask them what credit they find acceptable, if the terms are not clearly spelled out on the page on which you find the image. If they have not specified the terms, a simple link back to the image or credit is not necessarily enough.

Noncommercial means that you cannot use it to make money in any way whatsoever. This means that you cannot use it in an article that has advertising, you cannot use it on your business website, you cannot use it in an email list to clients, or in any way where you might conceivably make a few cents. You certainly can't upload it to Zazzle!

In addition, you may need to ask permission to use the image, even if you do not plan to use the image commercially. Some image creators want to make sure their images are used in a way they approve of.

So What Can I Use?

Help understanding the law
  • You can use any image you create yourself.
  • You can use any image published before January 1, 1923. (This will go up to 1924 in 2017.)
  • You can use any image which is a faithful reproduction of a two-dimensional image which itself is already in the public domain (that is, you can use a faithful photograph of a painting that was done before 1923).
  • You can use any image created by a government employee in the normal course of her or his duties. Just because an image is on a government web site does not mean that it is free to use, because the government web site may have received permission from the copyright holder in order to use it.
  • You can use images from or, if you use their linking practices (and you can make money from it, too).
  • You can use images for which you have permission. For example, I have several cartoons on my blog that were used by permission of the artist, and I keep those email permissions in a file in case a problem ever occurs. I also used a cartoon in a paper I did for graduate school, and again, I kept the permission I received in case someone forgets.
  • You can use a Creative Commons image that is licensed for commercial use, if you attribute it in the way the creator of that image specifies.
  • You can also license photos for a small fee from any of these sites and know that your photos will be 100% legal:
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Where do I Find Public Domain Images?

Wikipedia maintains a large list of public domain image repositories.

Wikimedia commons has a large collection of images, but be sure you scroll down to read the licenses. To be extra safe, use only those pictures in the public domain. There are over 2 million images in this collection as of this writing!

Pixabay, morguefile, and other sites have clipart and photos that may be in the public domain. Again, be sure to check the license on each image. Otherwise you may wind up in trouble, as some of these sites may link to an image on another site which has different requirements!

The Library of Congress also maintains large numbers of images. However, you need to check the copyright information on each image, as some images may still be under copyright.

Updated: 05/10/2015, classicalgeek
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classicalgeek on 05/10/2015

Thank you for the kind words!

I mostly use public domain images, but had affiliate accounts with and Now that they have changed to cj I will have to replace those images.

frankbeswick on 05/10/2015

A very useful article. Apart from photos that I have taken myself, I use fotolia, for whose images I pay a small fee. You need to have an account with fotolia. I purchase credits from them. I have never used creative commons.

classicalgeek on 05/10/2015

You're very kind. Thank you!

DebW07 on 05/09/2015

Excellent information—but I've come to expect nothing but excellence from you. Well done.

classicalgeek on 10/25/2013

It doesn't matter if you see the image on multiple web sites. Those people may either have bought a license to use the image, or they may be stealing it. If you use an image simply because someone else is using it, you may be subject to fines of thousands of dollars per image. It is your responsibility to assume the image is under copyright unless you can find evidence otherwise. No image is worth going to court over.

younghopes on 10/25/2013

This is quite informative and a lesson for all of us too, however i am a bit confused with images and copyright. How is it possible to know who is the original creator of a particular image when we see that image on numerous websites? This keeps happening all the time, when i seach google images, one image is seen on many websites, so what are we supposed to do in such a case, i know we need to use only free images but sometimes it becomes important to use google images with regard to the content of the article, Please advise.

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