Copyright law and photos: finders ≠ keepers

November 14, 2012

What you need to know about copyright law and photos:  Finders are not keepers when it comes to photos on the internet.

High quality, free photos from the internet are awesome. But, if you are stealing them, you are not so awesome. Here’s what you need to know to avoid getting a “cease and desist” notice, or having your website taken down, or paying thousands of dollars in fines (and don’t forget those attorney’s fees!).

Copyright is a federal law to protect original work whether it is published or not. It is different from trademarks and patents in that you never have to file any paperwork with the government to establish copyright. All those pictures you took on your iPhone? You automatically have a copyright and you don’t even have to attach the © to them to maintain your exclusive rights to them.

Copyright laws should be respected at all times when using images. If you can’t find a high quality free photo online, don’t take shortcuts by using a photo without permission. Instead, ask for permission to use it. As a charitable organization, your chances are good the photographer will say yes. If you can’t wait that long, seek and ye may find a good photo going through the right channels in the Creative Commons (Flickr is your friend), pay the fair asking price for an alternative photo online (typically found on stock photo sites) or better yet shoot your own photos or hire a professional photographer.

Attributing the person who took the photo (or linking back to the original site that housed the photo) should be regular practice on your part, but the issue that resolves is plagiarism, not copyright infringement. Copyright does not require attribution, but you should do it anyway, so as not to create the mistaken impression that the photos are your own. But from here on the gray area gets grayer. You might think that everyone and their mother are violating copyright rules on the Internet, but there is an exception to the rule of getting express authorization from the owner of a photo. It is called “fair use.”

Limited and reasonable use of images is allowed if it’s in the public interest. The news media can use images, though they, too, are paying for licenses to photos, mostly from AP and Getty. Product reviewers can, too. Fair use also covers teaching, research or other forms of scholarship. Fair use does not automatically exempt nonprofits, though if you are commenting on news and using the images from that same said news, you are fairly in the clear.

If you are not interfering with the image owner’s rights to pursue whatever they want to pursue with their image, you are also relatively safe. Clearly, however, that means you cannot use a professional photographer’s images on your website without their permission when they are trying to sell those images and make a living from them. That’s like stealing fruit from the grocery store owner because you are hungry.


Part Two: Coming soon, a post on how to use the Creative Commons to stay on the right side of the law when it comes to using photos found on the Internet.

– Liz