Taking stock: Demystifying copyright and online photography

Creative commons

A guide to what’s free, what’s not and what’s legal when looking for images online.

The Internet is amazing isn’t it?

Need a specific picture  for your website? No problem. Get yourself on Google, right click and save to do with as you please.  No charges. No consequences…

Well, unfortunately there are.  Like any literary or artistic work, images found on the Internet are protected by copyright law, require permission and in many cases a fee for their use.

Here’s our low down on the legalities – from rights-managed and royalty-free to public domain images

What is copyright?

“The exclusive and assignable legal right, given to the originator for a fixed number of years to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material.”

So, there we go. Thanks, Oxford Dictionary.

Copyright allows the creator of ‘original works of authorship’ to exclusively generate wealth from their creations, which enables writers, artists, musicians and similar art makers to support themselves. In turn, they’ll have incentive to create more work, which then makes the world a better place (sometimes).

Unlike trademarks or patents, you usually don’t have to actually do anything to copyright your work. From the time it is created it automatically becomes protected.

So, to use something that is covered by copyright, you need permission from the author.

Does copyright apply to online images?

Yep. Copyright applies to any literary or artistic work including photographs found online.

But aren’t images online in the public domain?

Nope. While it is quiet easy to take an image from a website and use it elsewhere, they are still copyright protected and the authors of these pictures can  enforce their rights.

Of course there are some free images out there, but the copyright holders must declare that their pictures are free to use before you can get your hands on them.

What happens if I use a copyrighted image without permission?

Lawsuits, legal fees and in extreme cases criminal charges.


Yes. Obviously it’s hard to chase every person who steals a picture, but the tech for finding the thieves  is constantly improving and the copyright enforcers are getting more vigilant.

How do I know if an image is copyright protected?

Some sites will name the source of their images just below the picture itself, however, many will reproduce without recognising the author.

The safest way to make sure you’re not infringing copyright is by using some of the many free image resources (we’re coming to those shortly).

What is stock photography?

So, you need a specific photograph but don’t have the resources to take the picture yourself? This is when you would turn to stock photography.

They’re stored in huge online libraries and databases by the likes of Getty,  Shutterstock and the ‘creative commons’ free resources (we’re getting to them. Promise). They cover different types of licensed images including rights-managed, royalty-free and those that are in the public domain.

What are rights-managed images?

Rights-managed can be free or require a payment, but there are lots of  variations to the licences e.g. the length of time you lease them for, your country or your industry.

What are royalty-free images?

Royalty-free means you make a one off payment for an image, which then gives you nearly unlimited use.

So, you can use it as many times as you like, in as many ways as you like, as long as you adhere to the original agreement.

What are public domain images?

These are the images that are released from any kind of copyright and free for anyone to use.

What the difference between commercial and non-commercial?

It’s the difference between wanting to post a picture in a personal blog to using  it on your company’s website. So, if you’re using it for fun it’s non-commercial. If you’re using it to generate income, then it’s in commercial.

OK. Tell me about the free image resources

There are lots of great ‘creative-commons’ services out there who help you find non-copyright protected images.

You can use these to search for any image you want and use it freely, without getting into trouble.

You mentioned Creative Commons. What is that?

Creative Commons is an organisation that allows creators to amend the copyright of their work (e.g. whether an image can be used for commercial or non-commercial purposes), so that other creators or groups can benefit from them.

The free image services mentioned above are licensed by Creative commons, so they can  identify what an image can and can’t be used for.

How do I find these fine services?

Well, I’m glad you asked. It just so happens that we’ve already put together a guide to the 5 best free image resources online.

…And that’s the mad, mad world of online photography ownership. Of course there are still large grey areas out there, but if you use what we’ve covered here, then it’s pretty hard to stray from the path.

Good luck.

Find this useful? If you have any questions, please let us know in the comment section below.

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Andy Siddons
Content Writer

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