The Law of Using Images from the Web on Your Blog

by Gray Reed & McGraw

Here are a few tips and rules about using images on your blog or website. Not only is simply copying something from the web a moral issue, it can get you into legal trouble.

Don’t Copy and Paste

Yes, the image is on Google Images.  Yes, it would be easy to cut and paste and it fits with the topic of your post.  But, just because it is on Google images, doesn’t mean it is free game.  You don’t have to file something with the copyright office or attach the © for the image to be copyrighted.  Bloggers like to brag about their social media prowess and not wanting to upset them.  Photographers are often the same way and they come to the defense of their own.

Stock Photo Services

There are websites that offer photos for your use at a relatively cheap price.  You can purchase some of the “royalty free” which means  once you purchase them, you to use them as many times as you like in as many mediums as you like. 

You may also find “royalty managed photos.”  These are photos you purchase for a specific period of time and a specific type of use.  You might be purchasing a photo for the home page of your website for one year.  Or, you might be purchasing a photo to include as stock art in the October issue of a magazine you produce.  These photos are usually very high quality and usually high in cost.   If you use one of these, you need to make sure to calendar when the license is up so you can remove the image. Otherwise you are at risk for paying additional fees for the period the image is left up.  If you repeatedly use the image in a number of mediums you could be at substantial monetary risk.   

Also be careful if you hire someone to design or post content to your blog or site.  They may have paid for the initial use, but let the license lapse.  This has happened to many a website owner.  Eight years later, you get sent a bill for the six years you have used the image on your site without permission. 

The Creative Commons License

Just because something is subject to a Creative Commons License, you need to dig a little deeper into exactly what kind.  For example, photo sharing site Flickr describes five different types of creative commons licenses.  Just take a minute and follow the rules applicable to each one. 

What about Watermarks?

Some photos contain watermarks to prevent their wide-spread use.  Some people really want to use the image and digitally remove the watermark.  Bad idea.  Not only are you liable for the value of the image, you are definitely looking at enhanced statutory damages and fees.  Don’t remove or crop them out. 

Can You Digitally Manipulate Purchased Photos?

You should always read the fine print in the contract but typically once an image is purchased you have the rights to edit and manipulate that image as you desire. 

Can you digitally manipulate an image and then claim it as your original?

Some people believe that If you take an image from the web and alter it enough, you create an original work not in violation of the original copyright holder.   You would be drawing a fine line between a transformative work (which means you have altered it enough to make it your own) and a derivative work (which means you have not altered it enough and the original owner still has the rights).   This is a factually-intensive issue, so if you need to consider it more, check out Peggy Hoon’s Collectanea post on “Making Sense of Derivative Works, Transformative Uses and Fair Use.”   For a real world example,  check out the story about the lawsuit over the iconic image of President Obama.   

What about Fair Use?

How much time do you have?   See above for both the more detailed link and the use of the President Obama images.  Because we are talking about the news value of the images, it likely involves fair use.

When in doubt ask

Don’t assume photos are free.  If you have any doubt, just ask.  Just as important, keep that email as proof.  Even if technically you did not get permission from the right person, you will show you made a good faith effort and avoid any willfull infringement finding which can make you liable for statutory penalties and attorneys’ fees.

Use your own

I try my best to use my own photos when I can, or simply show the symbols of the companies I am referencing.  My images often focus on my kids.  They will only be cute for a few more years before they turn into teenagers so I might as well take advantage of it while I can.  Otherwise, I will have to pose the family pet into ridiculous poses.

 Special thanks to Michael Blachly, Looper Reed’s Director of Client Development and talented photographer for the idea and some content.  Maybe he will let me use one of his images in the future.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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