Can I Copy Images from Other Websites?

It’s incredibly simple to search Google images for the photograph or graphic you need. But is it legal/ethical to take that image?

Quick Facts:

  • People really are dealing with lawyers for unlicensed use of images and graphics. It’s become common, and if you ignore the problem, it won’t go away.
  • Everyday bloggers and businesses are being targeted for unlicensed use of images.
  • Just because there is no copyright notice, it doesn’t mean it’s free to use.
  • Just because you site the source, doesn’t mean you can use it.
  • If you change the image or graphic a lot, it still belongs to the copyright owner.
  • “Fair Use” might not apply, even if you think it should.
  • Creative commons images aren’t always safe, you have to read the fine print.

You can get sued for copying images

It’s hard to believe, but a simple copy and paste from one website to another can lead to litigation. Getty Images, one of the largest stock photography websites, is well known for its extortion letter tactics, asking for thousands of dollars in compensation for unlicensed use of their images. Taking down an image is not enough, once they find one of their images on your site, they will send numerous letters and involve lawyers. And they’re not the only business resorting to these tactics. Sooner or later, if you haphazardly copy images from other websites, you are likely to run into cease and desist orders or even litigation.

Just because there is no copyright notice, doesn’t mean it’s free to use

You might be tempted to use an image or graphic from a site because they don’t seem to care, but that can come back at you in a bad way. Firstly, that site might have licensed the image from a stock photography website, or they might have infringed on someone else’s copyright. Secondly, a work is copyrighted as soon as it’s created: the owner doesn’t need to serve notice for it to be protected.

What if you modify the images?

It’s tempting to crop an image, change the colors, or distort it in some fashion to make it unrecognizable. However, this doesn’t ensure protection. Copyrighted protection extends to derivative works. In other words, all works that are created using a copyrighted work belong to the owner.

What about fair use?

Use of works for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. If an image is being used to make a page look nicer, it won’t be protected by fair use. Unfortunately, there is no clear assesment of fair use. Unless if you’re very familiar with the law, it’s best to avoid using copyrighted works unless you receive permission from the owner. Check out this article for more information about fair use.

So what can you use?

You can use pictures and graphics you create, of course. Otherwise, you can use copyright protected works if you receive permission from the copyright owner. Finding the copyright owner isn’t as simple as contacting the webmaster. Someone using an image might not be the copyright holder. Be sure to follow through with your investigation, make sure the person giving you permission is the actual owner of the copyright.

There are a number of stock photography services that provide licensing options for commercial use. Be careful to adhere to their terms of use though. For example, if you purchase a license to use on your website, and decide to use it on another website, you might end up in hot water.

There is another option. You can use a creative commons image. Authors who relinquish their rights to an image can offer them under a creative commons license. Be careful though, there are different creative commons licenses, some are free for commercial use, some are free for personal use. Some allow use with attribution, some do not require attribution. Check out this creative commons search tool to find images you can use.

How long does copyright last?

In the US, the term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. For more information, you can check out US copyright law on the matter.

Why all the trouble when you just want to copy an image?

Copyright protection is meant to serve people who spent time and creative energy making something unique. When you take someone’s image, you are stealing the rewards of their labor. A lot of effort goes into a great image. The process can take hours using equipment costing thousands of dollars.

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