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What You Should Know About Using Images

Isn’t the web wonderful? You can find drawings and photographs of almost anything you like. Then you can use them in your documents, in promotional materials, and on your websites.

Or can you?

Many people violate copyright laws through their misappropriation of images from the web, or misuse of photos they have which were taken by other people. Let’s review what you can actually do.

You may use your own photographs and artwork on your website as long as you have the proper permissions and licenses:

  • You must have a written release from any recognizable person AND
  • You must own the copyright to the image OR
  • You must have a license to use the image on a website OR
  • The image must be in public domain.

Note that in general, you are not allowed to use professional photographs, even those of you. These photos include those taken at a studio or on site, including those from the local department store or the guy with the parrot or snake at the fair. Think about it. If someone wrote a story about you, she would hold the copyright on the story, not you. Similarly, it is the photographer, not the subject, who is doing the creative work of making an image.

Since the photographer holds the copyright on the image, you need a specific license to use it in any way other than framing it and hanging it on your wall (that includes duplicating it in any way). Though this is mostly the concern of professional photographers, it applies to your friends as well. If they take a photo of you at a party and send it to you, the picture still belongs to them and you really need their permission to use it in any way.

Often, casual photographers will gladly give their permission for you to use their work in return for a simple credit, such as “Photo by Jane Doe.”  Professionals may be content with that as well (perhaps including a link to their website), or they may want a royalty, or deny permission altogether.   Ask!  For your protection, get a clear license from any photographer whose work you use.

You also cannot simply use images found on the internet.  Just because someone else has posted them doesn’t make them available for others to use.  You need to check the licensing carefully. Many photographers release their photos through some version of the Creative Commons license.  Some license versions specify that “you must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).”  Unfortunately, the authors don’t always provide the specifications, leaving you to make your best effort to comply.

If you find the photo on the internet and the photo is available for your use (be sure to check about commercial use and modification), make a note of the specific license granted.  Often, if it is a Creative Commons license, there will be a link to the specific license.  Get a copy of it, and note to which images it applies.  Some photos are released into the public domain, which allows you to use it freely in any way and without any attribution.  Again, be sure to note this.

Be careful, however, if the image has recognizable people or copyrighted items (including artwork, architecture, and products) in it.  The people and the item copyright holders have to grant a release.  The photographer should obtain this before making the photograph available, but you probably still have legal responsibility if there is an issue.  Be wise.

All this about photographs applies to artwork too. You can commission an artist to paint your portrait, but the artwork still belongs to the artist. Get permission before you use it. Technically, even if your toddler draws you a picture of something and gives it to you, he is the artist and copyright holder.

If you hire someone do artwork or photography for you, make sure you receive permission to use the images in all the ways you think you will need, including duplicating them, sending them to others, posting them on the web, using them in documents. Think about every possibility. Then get it in writing for your protection.  The copyright can transfer to you under specific situations, but unless you meet all the criteria, the copyright stays with the creator unless the copyright holder actually transfers the copyright.

All this may seem a little extreme, but it really is only being courteous and fair to the creative person who took or made an image. Most people will gladly give you the permission you need if you just take the time to ask.


For a PDF copy of What to Know About Using Images, click on the link. (Right-click and select “Save target as” to download.)

You may want to read our other articles:

Why You Need a Website
Beware the High Costs of Free Website Services
Choosing a Host for Your Website
About Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Page Content and Usability — More Vital than SEO
The Website Workout Collection

You might also like to check out The Smithery, the Word & Web Smith blog.