The Web Designer’s Guide to Image Copyrights

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.

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