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A blog about branding, marketing, and design, mostly through the lens of practical psychology, intended to be a resource to small businesses and entrepreneurs. Unless otherwise noted, all articles are written by Nyla Smith, owner of n-Vision Designs. {Subscribe to the RSS feed here: RSS}

Thou shalt not steal (images)

Nyla Smith | Tuesday, August 05, 2014

We all know stealing is wrong, right? What's a little ambiguous for some is what constitutes "stealing", particularly on the internet. If you're not familiar with internet copyright law, beware — what you don't know could cost you.

Don't you just love the internet? In particular, don't you just love Google Images? Need a photo of a pretty sunset on the beach? Check. How about a serious looking businessman leading a lecture? Check. A cat wearing a birthday hat doing the limbo? Check!

But...wait a minute. Did you ever stop to think where exactly these images are coming from? Probably not, right? They're just...there. Pages of them! Free for the taking!

Whoa, Nelly. Stop right there. Google (and other search engines) merely compiles information that is on the web and presents it to you. Many people are under the impression that just because images are easily accessible and freely viewable, that they're freely usable. That couldn't be further from the truth. We understand that, in other contexts. Would you ever walk into a grocery store, and seeing that there is an abundance of food that you can walk up to and pick up, just grab an apple and walk out? Of course not; you understand that as stealing — taking something that doesn't belong to you without paying for it. For whatever reason, we seem to have a hard time applying the same logic to intangible digital content. All images come from somewhere, and unless the owner of an image explicitly gives you permission to use it, it belongs to them. Using their image without their permission is a violation of copyright law, and could land you in hot water.

So, what are you to do? Well, there are two options:

1. Create your own images

2. Use images that you have a license to use (stock images).

What are stock images?

Stock images are images that photographers/artists have made available for you to use (usually at a cost). It's important to clarify that you're not actually buying the photo itself, but rather a license to use the photo. Different licenses are available for various purposes (and have different costs), and you have to make sure you have the right license to use the image in the way you want.

Where can I get stock images?

There are many stock photo websites, and each have different offerings. Some may offer free images along with paid images. Many royalty-free images can be purchased for just a few dollars. Most stock photo websites offer subscription packages for high-volume users. Some popular stock photo websites are: 

Creative Commons license

I also want to mention Creative Commons. Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that allows content creators to offer their own copyright licenses to give the public permission to use them. You may find a lot of images on Flickr that are under a Creative Commons license. In many cases, a Creative Commons license can allow you to freely and legally use an image. In theory, this is a terrific idea. Unfortunately, there have been more and more cases where unscrupulous people have assigned an image a Creative Commons license, when they don't actually own the image to begin with. That's like somebody stealing an iPod, then giving it to you as a gift. What this means is there could be images under copyright that you think are free to use, but aren't. If you then use it, even with the belief that it was under a Creative Commons license, YOU are still held liable for violating copyright. The end user is always held responsible, no matter what. Yes, it's ridiculous — like the police arresting you for your stolen iPod, and choosing to let the thief get a free pass. But unfortunately, that's the way it is right now. For that reason, I would recommend using images under a Creative Commons license with caution. At least try to do your due diligence first, and see if you can verify the owner. One way to do this is to do a reverse image search to see where else the image might be used on the internet. You can use TinEye or Google Images to search for a specific image. If it comes up on a stock photo site, or it leads to some other photographer's portfolio, etc, that would be an indication that you don't have the rights to use it.

What could happen if I use an image I don't have license to?

If you use somebody else's image and they find out (which really isn't that difficult for them to do), they may come after you for copyright infringement. Usually they'll notify you and give you a chance to remove and stop using the offending image. Sometimes that is enough. However, depending on how large/influential you are, how long you've been using the image, how much exposure it got, how much money it helped generate for you, etc, they may decide that you owe them money.

Getty Images is the giant of stock photo companies. They own getty.com, istockphoto.com, stock.xchng (freeimages.com), StockXpert and a whole lot more. In recent years, their reputation has grown for being relentless and even unethical in their method of copyright enforcement. Instead of sending a "cease and desist" letter, they send "demand letters" in which they basically say, "You're using our image without permission. We don't care if you did it unintentionally. You owe us _____ (ridiculous amount of money, far greater than what the image license would have cost). Pay us now or we will sue you. No excuses." Many feel it's a form of legalized extortion. I personally know of a business that received one of these letters for their (unintentional) use of a photo, and let me tell you, it's an unfortunate and expensive situation to be in.

Using stock photos in logos?

Don't do it. You will not be able to trademark your logo if it contains other material that you do not own the rights to. Even if you don't plan to trademark your logo, most stock licenses prevent you from using them for this purpose, anyway.

Using images for blogging

"I thought if it didn't have a watermark or display the copyright symbol then it's okay to use." Nope. ("But officer, I thought that since this apple wasn't nailed to the bin under lock and key that it was okay for me to walk out with it.") When blogging, you probably want to include images to go along with the blog posts you write. If you're a frequent blogger, it's unlikely that you will have the resources to create or photograph your own images for each post. Your best bet is to sign up for a stock photo subscription service. It will end up being most cost-effective that way. If you blog less frequently, see if free images from the stock photo sites listed above will suffice. Note: some free images will still require a credit link to be posted with the image. Other images may only be free for personal use. Always read the fine print.

Feeling virtuous yet?

I'll admit, copyright law, when it comes to the internet, can seem kind of screwy. Especially when you think about the abundance of image sharing that happens online — think Facebook, for example. Lax and prolific usage such as this no doubt contributes to the false notion that anything on the internet is fair game. But regardless of how nonsensical it may seem to you, it is still an enforeceable law. And the penalties can be hefty. So, when in doubt, get permission!

Nyla Smith is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 12 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.
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