Image Copyright, Licensing, & Why it Matters

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Images have become the standard communication tool of our world.  1.8 billion images are uploaded everyday—that’s 657 billion images a year, posted, traded, and shared freely throughout the web  Why not co-opt an image or two from this plethora of seemingly free content?

There are some potentially costly reasons not to do that.

Copyright Infringement is Big Business

What are the odds that a copyright holder would even run across their “co-opted” content?  Fairly high, actually.  Several years ago, a respected photographer told me that collecting on copyright infringements of his work had become a larger source of income than shooting images.  It was so profitable, in fact, that he started a whole department whose sole purpose was to pursue and collect on these cases.

Softwares and services such as Tin Eye and Pixsy, among many others, make searching for infringements a completely automated process for individual copyright owners.  Stock photography companies have their own proprietary software that searches every corner of the web, 24/7, year after year.

Your Website Can be Shutdown & Google Could Ignore Your Content

When a copyright owner, or their agents, find that you’ve infringed on their copyright, they will usually send you Cease and Desist Order.  If you fail to respond, or to fulfill their requests, DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) notices will often be drafted and sent to your ISP (internet service provider) and web host.  A DMCA notice legally obligates the companies that provide your digital services to address the infringement or be liable themselves for damages.  This means that your web host or ISP can shut your site down, and search engines may pull all your content from potential customer’s search results.

With music and movie piracy running rampant, it’s understandable why many think borrowing an image or two from the billions online isn’t a problem.  The bottom line is: if you use a photo that wasn’t taken by you, and don’t bother licensing or getting permission, you’ve committed copyright infringement and put yourself, your company, or your clients at needless risk.  

“The US Copyright Act of 1976, the defining document that governs creative ownership, states that original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression are wholly owned by the creator and this ownership lasts from the point of creation until 70 years after the death of the owner.”

How to Use Visual Content Without Inspiring a Lawsuit

The most obvious answer is to license the visual content that you use on your website and online outlets.  I’ve outlined where to find many of the best image sources in a previous article and encourage you to check them out.

Google’s Reverse Image Search

What if you’ve found the perfect image for your homepage somewhere online but can’t find the owner?  Google offers a wonderful tool commonly referred to as “reverse image search”.  This tool allows you to do a web search based solely on an image.  There are two important benefits to this approach.  The first is that Google will list every website that the image appears on and you might be able to track down the copyright owner and get permission to use the image or pay for usage.  The second benefit is that Google also presents visually similar imagery that’s usually easier to license.

To use Google Image Search, go to images.google.com, then click on the camera icon then either paste the URL of the image you like or select an image you’ve copied to your computer.  Once the search is performed, Google will add its best guess at what the image is into the search terms.

Pro Tip: Replace or add “stock photography” to Google’s suggested search terms.  The image results should be visually similar to the original image and also be available to easily license from a stock agency.

Embed Getty Images For Free

In an effort to curtail its less-than-stellar reputation from sending thousands of copyright infringement notice letters, Getty Images built a very valuable and legal way to use their images for free!  This tool allows image users to embed Getty-owned image content directly into their website and cut down on the infringement of their content.  One important stipulation to note, though: this tool is only legally used on websites, social media, and blogs that aren’t commercial by nature.  Be sure to read the legal terms of service before using.


John Fulton is a photographer, director, and digital artist based in Atlanta, Georgia. He is primarily known for his conceptual imagery but works in a wide spectrum of subject matter for clients like AT&T, Honda, Delta, Harley-Davidson, Dupont, Novartis, United Airlines, Aflac, and Anheuser-Busch among others. John’s work has earned him a ranking in the “200 Best Ad Photographers Worldwide” 4 years running. He pens our newest content series: Website Photography Tips for Small Budgets.

  1. Sources of Inexpensive and Free Images
  2. Image Copyright, Licensing, & Why it Matters
  3. Choosing the Right Image Every Time
  4. Custom Photography: Creating Your Own Website Images

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