Copyright: why you can’t just use Google images

By Popdot's Sara Bosch and Nicole Sidoti

There is a common misconception: just because an image is on the internet, it doesn’t mean the image is free to use. You still need the correct license to use it, either for a personal blog or for commercial use. Although there are sources of free, legal images, they still have copyright, so the creator of the image must specifically declare the image free to use.

Copyright can seem complicated to get around, but it’s not. The main thing to bear in mind is that copyright applies to all images, as it’s automatically granted to the creator of any work. From the time it is generated, a photo or other image is automatically protected by copyright. It is pretty straightforward.

Everyone should worry about copyright infringement; it may result in fines, lawsuits and costly legal fees. Remember it does not matter:

  • If you credit the photographer
  • If you link back to the source
  • If you only use part of the image
  • If you have a specific disclaimer
  • If you made no money from its use

You are still violating copyright, so using these tactics does not release you from liability. You could be sued. It’s a serious matter, as you need specific permission from the copyright holder. And please don’t think you can easily get away with using an image just because you found it on Google Images. Google Images sources images from all over the internet and catalogues them for easy searchability. Images have digital rights managed (a sort of ‘fingerprint’) and their use is easily detectable. New software enables identification of unlicensed imagery and acts to protect copyright owners. So imagery can be tracked and found, even if it has been modified or even recreated. The image is then flagged up to the copyright owner so that they can verify if the correct license is held.

To avoid all the stress and potential financial loss of using unlicensed images, Wikipedia Commons is a great place to start (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikimedia_Commons), an online repository of free use images, sounds, and other media files. You can use images that are Creative Commons licensed or simply public domain. Just check the usage guidelines for each image to check if and how you should be crediting the image owner.

Creative Commons (CC) licensed images (http://creativecommons.org/about) are still protected under the country’s intellectual property laws. There is indeed an owner who has copyright, but has allowed his/her work to be used by anyone for personal, educational or non-profit non-commercial purposes. There are different types of CC licenses, and depending on the authorisation granted, images can be copied, distributed, or altered, provided that the owner of the work is acknowledged. Note that this attribution is not needed for images in the public domain.

Public domain images are works not protected under intellectual property laws. They are images whose copyrights have expired or their creators can no longer claim exclusive rights over them; the public now owns the work. Anyone can then display, copy, manipulate or distribute them. Next time you Google search images, consider using the search tool button to filter images by license labelled for: reuse, reuse with modification, non-commercial reuse with modification or non-commercial reuse.

Alternatively, take your own photos. Everyone has a digital camera or a smartphone with a camera. The problem is that not everyone has the time to take them! That’s when media agencies buy expensive subscriptions to stock banks; this allows agencies to search among millions of images, and use and reuse them for any purpose and client, anytime.

We’re collating our definitive guide of image sources, ranging from free to paid for libraries that individuals and businesses can use. Keep an eye out for our list to provide you with great images that are on the safe side of copyright law.