The internet gives us access to more sources of inspiration—through ideas, pictures, videos, designs, and more—than we could ever possibly use in multiple lifetimes. If you are a blogger, you might find a picture that would go perfectly with a post you’re writing. If you are a designer, you might want to use an image you found online in a project. Services like Google image search put hundreds, or thousands, of images literally at our fingertips, but we must always take care to make sure we have permission to use an image the way we want to use it. Copyright law is a vast and complicated field, but a little bit of knowledge in this area can go a long way towards helping you avoid potentially costly mistakes.
What is a copyright, exactly?
A person who creates something, such as a photograph, drawing, or design, has certain exclusive rights to that creative work. These rights, collectively known as a “copyright,” usually include the right to use or display the work, to adapt it to new forms, and to derive income from it.
Copyright protections can apply even if the person does not register their work with the U.S. Copyright Office. Federal law allows a copyright owner to sue and recover damages for copyright infringement. Laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act also require internet service providers to remove or disable access to content upon receipt of a copyright infringement notice.
With pictures you find online, you need to make sure that you have permission to use a particular picture, that the permission covers the type of use you intend, and that you give the correct attribution.
What are the different rights regarding online pictures?
In the context of pictures you find online, there are three types of usage rights you must consider:
– Right to use or share: This allows you to copy or redistribute an image without making any changes to it.
– Right to modify: This allows you to make changes to an image, and then copy or redistribute it.
– Right to commercial use: This allows you to use an image, either unchanged or modified, for commercial purposes.
How do I get permission to use a picture?
Many images are available to use, with the permission to use them (commonly known as a “license”) already established:
– Release from copyright owner: You can use any photo or image with the copyright owner’s permission. Many websites maintain massive databases of photographs and stock photos that you can use, provided you pay a fee.
– Public domain: An image released into the public domain, either because the copyright owner releases it or because the copyright expires, is available for any type of use, free of charge.
– Creative Commons: Copyright owners may license the use of their works for free under various Creative Commons (CC) licenses. Different CC licenses may restrict commercial use or modifications to a work.
How do I give proper attribution for a picture?
Whether you have to give attribution or credit for a picture depends on the type of license, although it is rarely, if ever, a bad idea to credit someone for their work. A license issued by a copyright owner may include specific attribution instructions, and most CC licenses have standard procedures for attribution. Public domain images typically do not require attribution.
Can I use a copyrighted picture under the Fair Use Doctrine?
“Fair use” is a commonly-misunderstood term. It is an exception to copyright protection, but it usually comes up as a defense to a claim of copyright infringement. If your only justification for using the picture is Fair Use, you need to be very confident that your use qualifies. According to federal law, “fair use” includes “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching…, scholarship, or research.” Please note that this is not an “exclusive” list, meaning that there could be other uses that qualify for Fair Use, but it gives you an idea of what is required.
Where can I find images that are in the public domain or covered by Creative Commons licenses?
Coming soon: More on Creative Commons licenses, Fair Use, and how to find images you can use for free on Google image search.