Image copyright - can you use that photo on your site?

Image copyright rules - can you use that photo on your website?

Most website owners will add some eye-catching images to their sites. This is a good move: high quality, interesting images keep visitors engaged on your website for longer, plus, when Google displays images in search, it's a potential source of new visitors.  

But where are these images coming from? Do you have permission to use them or are you falling foul of copyright law without even realising it?

Most of us would never dream of copying someone else’s written work, but the same principle is often ignored when it comes to images, which are just as much subject to copyright laws as the written word.

DLSR camera

Let's fess up, though. At some point, though, we’ve probably all been guilty of it. We find that perfect image on Google, right-click and copy it to our website or social media without checking for usage rights.

The problem is, with today's technology it’s pretty easy for the owner of these images (or a company working on their behalf) to search the web to find out who’s using their photography, clip art or cartoons without permission, and this can land you in some expensive trouble!

What happens if you use an image without permission?

If you’re caught using an image without the owner’s permission or the appropriate license, you may have to pay a fine, in addition to a fee for the period that already you’ve used the image. Offering to remove the image doesn’t change the fact that you’ve had the use of it up to that point, so you’re unlikely to get away scot-free.

Royalty-free does not mean copyright-free or payment-free

It’s important to understand that a royalty-free image is not the same as a copyright-free image. It definitely doesn’t mean payment free!

About image copyright

Copyright law gives the owner of an original image exclusive rights to it for a certain time period. They have the right to prevent others from copying it, distributing it, adapting it for use in another creation (a derivative work) or publicly showing it without their permission. During this period, the image is not copyright-free and you should never use it yourself without the express permission of the owner, or someone who is licensed to sell copies of it, such as a stock photo website.

About royalties on images

The owner of a copyrighted image can earn revenue by licensing reproductions of it in exchange for a royalty payment.

Royalty-free” generally means that when you have paid the owner of the image (the person that owns the copyright) a one-time fee, sometimes called a licence fee or royalty fee,  you are free to use that image as many times as you like without paying any further royalty fees.

This still doesn’t give you complete freedom; the licence is likely to be subject to terms which specify how and where you’re able to use the image. For example you may be free to use it on websites, billboards, brochures, packaging etc. but not in connection with political material, or in content of an offensive, libellous or sexual nature.

When you pay for photos from stock-photo sites, you’ll be asked to comply with their licence agreement. Here’s an example of Shutterstock’s licence agreement.

I’ve paid a royalty fee for an image– do I own the copyright now?

No. Even when you've paid a royalty (or licence) fee for an image that you want to use on your website, the copyright still lies with the original creator (unless the copyright period has expired, the owner has given up their rights to it, or the image is a work in the public domain).

In practical terms, this means you still can’t:

  • adapt the image
  • claim it as your own
  • identically recreate the image
  • authorise anyone else to use it or
  • use the image in a way that breaches the licence agreement.

What is a public domain image?

Images in the public domain are completely free to use and unprotected by copyright. They are copyright free. There’s a fine distinction that’s important to understand, though: just because you see an image on the internet or in a book, it’s not necessarily in the public domain in the copyright sense of the phrase. It's still the property of the creator unless it fulfills the exceptions described below.

There are four main ways that an image can arrive in the public domain:

  1. Expiry of copyright
  2. The copyright owner failed to renew the copyright
  3. The copyright owner deliberately places the work in the public domain (known as “dedication”)
  4. Copyright law does not cover that particular type of work.

You can read more about works in the public domain here.

Copyright Law

When you pay a royalty fee, do you have exclusive use of an image?

Don’t expect to have exclusive use of a royalty-free image unless you’ve agreed this specifically with the copyright owner. Paying a royalty fee simply gives you (and others) permission to use the image.

Stock photo websites like Shutterstock, iStock and Bigstock will take royalty payments from many users and you’ll often see popular stock photos popping up on various online media around the web.

I’ve seen an image on someone else’s website – how do I get permission to use it?

If you’ve found the perfect image but it’s on someone else’s website, get in touch with them to establish who owns the image and whether they would grant permission for you to use it. Depending on the circumstances, they may be only too happy to agree, especially if you’re promoting something about them.

The different scenarios here are:

  1. They agree you can use the image free of charge for the purpose you outlined in your request
  2. They agree you can use the image but insist that you give them attribution (e.g. a link to their website alongside the image and an acknowledgement of their copyright)
  3. They ask for a royalty payment to use the image
  4. They refuse permission.

So the next time you’re tempted to right-click and save..?

Resist the temptation. You’ll kick yourself for not checking the usage rights of a photo, cartoon or clip-art when a letter demanding several hundred (or several thousand) pounds in fines and retrospective licence fees lands on your doormat.

If in doubt, check it out.

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