By John Tabita

The Web Designer’s Guide to Image Copyrights

By John Tabita

Photographers—even amateurs—can get touchy if they think you’ve used their image without permission. About a year ago, I used a Flickr image in a blog post. Although I credited the photographer at the end of the article, the blog summary page displaying the image thumbnail did not have the credit line.

When the photographer saw I’d used her image, she didn’t bother to check the actual post to see if I’d credited her; instead, she sent me a snarky email, then posted a comment on her Flickr page, telling everyone how I’d “stolen” the image.

Once I showed her where I’d placed the attribution, it was all well and good. Misunderstanding avoided.

The ability to self-publish has led to the mistaken notion that, if it appears in a Google image search, it’s okay to use. As web professionals, we ought to know better. Coming from a graphic arts background, I already understood how copyrights worked long before I started designing websites.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. It’s easy to get into web design with little or no budget; and the temptation to use images from the Internet, rather than paying for stock photography, can be … well, tempting.

What’s more, easy-to-use blogging platforms like Tumblr and WordPress means people with no understanding of copyright laws are right-clicking and “Save(ing) Image As…” each and every day. Many of us build WordPress sites for our clients; it’s important we advise them on the proper use of images before giving them the keys to the back-end.

As a designer, placing copyrighted images on a site puts your client in an awkward position. After all, who do you suppose the owner of that image is going to contact? Even if a simple “cease and desist” resolves the matter, it’s still downright embarrassing. If you don’t have access to a stock library, a simple solution is to build the cost of a few stock images into the price of the site, then charge the client extra if he needs more.

When it comes to professional stock photography, there are two traditional licensing models: Rights Managed and Royalty Free.

Rights Managed

Rights Managed means the right to use the image is managed and controlled—usually by a stock agency. Images are typically licensed for a set fee based on where it’s being used, and for how long.

Rights managed images are advantageous when the advertiser wants to be sure that the image they’ve selected is “off-the-market” and not currently being used in any other advertising or—God forbid—by the competition. Paying more for a rights managed image ensures this never happens.

Royalty Free

Royalty free doesn’t mean free to use; it means you don’t pay a royalty payment each time you use the image. When you purchase a royalty free image—either individually or as part of a compilation—you may use it as often as you like, as many times as you like.

There are some usage restrictions (such as placing the image on a tee shirt or template you’ll be reselling), so be sure to check the licensing terms carefully.

The downside of using low-cost, royalty free imagery is the risk of a popular image or the same model appearing many places at once—such as here and here and here and here and here and here, and as well as a well-dressed doctor on a local medical center billboard here in my home town.

If you’ve built more than one website, you probably realize how difficult it is to obtain content from clients. Despite the risks, a typical small business doesn’t have the marketing reach or budget of a Dell or Gateway, so royalty free images remain a cost-effective alternative.

It’s certainly a better option than using images from a Google search. Unless the image you found specifically states terms of use, assume it’s not available to use. Otherwise, you may find yourself on the wrong end of a rights-violation sting. (And if you do, please don’t construe this article as legal advice. I’m not an attorney, so be sure to consult with someone who is, if the need arises.)

With sites like Flickr, you might be wondering why anyone would pay for photography, when you can get no-cost images legally. I’ll be covering that topic next week, so stay tuned.

Image credit

  • John,

    I tried reading through all the posts on the closed thread on sitepoint you mentioned regarding the use of stock photos and the demand letters many people have received. I too received a demand letter, and successfully defended myself against the demand by following the advice given on this web site: http://www.extortionletterinfo.com/

    In my case, I’m located in Canada. The complainant was located in the USA. Their agent made all kinds of threats, but basically was trying to enforce US copyright law in Canada, and was giving legal advice to me without proper Canadian licenses (not to mention her obvious conflict of interest with her client and the advice she was trying to offer me in addition to her threats).

    For image copyright owners, there is a huge rush for jackpot justice to try to claim money for breach. Yet, on the other side, there certainly is a lot of ignorance about using images with permission or proper licensing. My advice, don’t cave into the demand letter scheme, get good legal council, then produce documentation if you HAVE purchased licenses or have permission and STAND YOUR GROUND against these claims. Have faith in the legal system. You can defend yourself successfully if you are fully aware of the law, so get educated and informed, and do so.

    Great article, looking forward to more on the topic.


  • I should also mention, there is a good tool for searching or researching images used online. Its called Tineye, at http://www.tineye.com

    There is a plug in for Google Chrome from Tineye that enables the Chrome browser to right click on any image, then search tineye for stock photo galleries that have that image in their inventory. A list of stock web sites is returned as well as other web sites using the image. Handy tool for finding who ‘owns’ a stock image when sourcing stock, and handy tool to discover who else has the image in their inventory (maybe at a better price, or to show that the image is not exclusive to Getty). Also handy tool to find out who has been pilfering images for the IP rights owner.

    A good tool, with many uses.

  • Great article!
    It´s important pay attention where your pictures and content come from.

  • Stevie D

    Don’t forget the other option – if you find a photo through Google Images that you really like the look of and that would work well in your design, there’s no harm in dropping a polite email to the site owner asking if you can use the photo on your site. Sure, they might say ‘no’, but there’s a fair chance they’ll say ‘yes’, particularly if you’re working in a different sector or area to them and so unlikely to get overlap visitors.

  • It is unfortunate that the web is full of “borrowed” graphics. So many people grab the pictures they like and decide to use them as their own. I have found several of my pictures being used on other websites or even in YouTube videos, all without my permission. I don’t mind it quite as much when they link to the source images, but when they download the image from my website and then upload it to theirs, it breaks the ability for someone to find the source. The Google Image Search is a good way to find other uses of your pictures. I have also found that finding a picture on flickr or a website doesn’t mean the person who owns the account or website actually has permission to use the picture or grant others the right to use it.

    My personal opinion is that when developing a website for a customer, use their pictures whenever possible. If it is a restaurant, take pictures there instead of stock photography of people or food. If it is a lawn service provider, take pictures of actual lawns they service. I would rather see a picture of the owner of the company instead of a stock photo of a guy in a business suit. As an added bonus, if you take the pictures yourself, you have much less chance of the photographer coming back to complain.

  • PJ

    Out of interest, if I was to take selected parts of multiple images and blend them into an image of my own creation.. where would I stand then?

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