Understanding image copyright rules by Claire Jenks Design

The legal aspects of image copyright can be confusing, especially since regulations differ from country to country. Confusing as it may be though, the rules apply to everyone, so ignorance is no excuse for image misuse. So whether you’re a blogger, designer, or just someone who likes to share other people’s work online, the following blog post should come in useful.

So firstly, what exactly is copyright?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines copyright as follows:

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.

Copyright protection gives the owner exclusive rights to;

  • Reproduce their work
  • Display their work
  • Create derivative content from their work
  • Distribute copies of their work to a public audience

Some designers, photographers and artists may sell rights to their work as means of generating income, while others just want to be credited for their efforts. Whatever the motive, the decision to copyright materials is that of the work’s owner, and the licence under which the work is protected must be respected.

To use someone else’s copyright protected image for yourself, you must either:

  • Agree a licence with the owner to use it (see below)
  • Buy or acquire the copyright
  • Confirm that your intended use falls within the exceptions to copyright

Creative Commons (CC) licences

If you use a lot of images in your work, there’s a good chance you would have heard of Creative Commons, or at least be familiar with the CC logo. Creative Commons licences provide a simple way for content creators to grant others permission to use their work, under certain specified conditions.

There are six different types of Creative Commons licence, which vary from very accommodating, to very restrictive. For instance, at the accommodating end of the scale exists the CC BY licence, which  allows others to distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon work, even commercially, as long as they credit the original creation. At the other end of the scale is the CC BY-NC-ND licence, which only allows others to download works and share them with others as long as they credit the source, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially. You can read more about the different types of licences here.

These licences exist to help both the owner and the user, so it’s important to understand the restrictions of each of the licences before using copyrighted work in any way. Failing to do so might land you in trouble.

Just because you found it, it doesn’t make it yours

Image sharing via social media sites and blogs has exploded in recent years, and as a result it is widely assumed that any digital content that exists in the public domain is free for the taking. However, just because you find something on Google, Facebook, or any other search engine or website, it doesn’t mean it’s free – you should assume that all online content is protected by copyright law, unless you have proof to suggest otherwise.

Understanding fair use

Fair use, also referred to as; free use, fair dealing, or fair practice, is an exception to copyright law that allows for the use of copyrighted works without licensing under the following circumstances:

  • Non-commercial research and private (individual) study
  • Criticism or review
  • News reporting

Fair use exists for the interest of the general public, providing these rules are followed. You cannot claim fair use if you use an image to simply add personality to your own content, or are using the image for commercial gain, for example. You can read more about fair use here.

Where to find images online

Copyright is a complex topic, but don’t let that deter you from using images in your work. There are plenty of publishers out there who are happy for you to use their work, so long as you adhere to the terms of the licence.

A good place to start is the Creative Commons search tool, which allows you to search for Creative Commons licensed content within popular sites such as Flickr, Google Images, and the Open Clipart Library.

In summary

Never publish an image without first seeking permission from the owner, or without crediting it under the conditions of the Creative Commons licence – you should never assume images are free for the taking. If you are in doubt you should attempt to contact the copyright holder directly, or contact the site where you first found the image. If attempts to contact the owner or website fail, it pays to err on the side of caution and leave the image well alone.