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Oh Snap, Can I (Legally) Use That Photo?

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vintage cameraEvery day we search for just the right photo for our post on our blog, Facebook, or Instagram from a wide variety of sources. But do you have the legal right to use the picture just because it is online? No. Can you get in trouble for this? Yes. Let's look at what you can and can't' t do to remain a good citizen of the web.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that just because the photo is online that you can post it anywhere. That is NOT true. Don't' t do it.

Can I post a photo from Pinterest and put the link to Pinterest as the photo credit? No.

From attorney Sara Hawkins: attribution does not make it right.

“Taking another person's image or graphic and giving them a “shout out,” linkback, or any other type of attribution does not negate copyright infringement. Common sense may say that an artist wants exposure for their work, but we're talking about the law here, and common sense doesn't always parallel. Copyright law gives the copyright holder the right to decide where their work is published, and maybe they don't want their work on your site, in your book, included in your newsletter or distributed to your social media network. It's not for us to question why they wouldn't want exposure.”

If you love a photo that doesn't have credit listed, you can look for the source using the Chrome Extension Search by Image. When you run the Chrome extension, all the photos that you see on the web will have the tiny blue camera in the bottom right corner. You can click this camera to initiate the Google photo search.



A search for an image pulls up something like this in Google:


If you use photos without permission, you can receive a DMCA Takedown Notice and possibly be fined. Here is more information about what a DMCA Takedown Notice is and how to file a DMCA Takedown Notice if you need to. Again, from my super-smart friend Sara Hawkins. Why am I quoting Sara so extensively? She is an attorney, and I am not. These are legal issues, and while the web seems like the wild, wild west, we can't' t legally do whatever we want. You can get in trouble for photos on posts on your blog or social media posts. And I should also note, that Sara provides guidance in her writing and I'm sharing that with you but if you have specific legal questions please consult an attorney.

There's a great video on the Creative Commons website which talks about the copyright licenses. Check it out here.

How can you find photos to use on your blog or social media? Let's talk about places to legally get free photos.

A great point from Kerry O'Shea'Shea Gorgone “If people do use Flickr/CreativeCommons, remember that it's always possible the uploader was not actually the owner. Businesses should search by image on Google to confirm ownership before using those pictures commercially.” Here is a link to Google's Search by Image.

Here's a list of 11 places to get a free and legal photo for your blog. “The bottom line is if you can't afford a stock photo, you certainly can't afford the fine that comes from stealing one.”

1. Free Pixels

2. Stock.xchng

3. Creative Commons is a great resource. Make sure that you check the correct box at the top if you are going to use the photo for commercial purposes or modify, adapt, or build upon (like adding text or banners in PicMonkey).


An important point to remember is to properly cite the photo on your blog or social media post once you find a photo that you have permission to use. At the bottom of my blog posts, I add “Photo courtesy of Blah Blah via Creative Commons” with a link in their name to the photo. For my social media posts, I list photo credit: NAME/source.

Infographics are another big question.  Many infographics provide the embed code so that it can be shared on blogs and websites with a link back to their original source. Sara Hawkins commented on my Google+ post saying ” with infographics, just like all works that would be subject to copyright, we never really know what the copyright holder will agree with. Most infographic creators want them shared, but they also want to be given credit. Some watermark/include attribution on the graphic in case people forget to provide attribution. But the “best practice” should always be to obtain permission or have a very clear Fair Use claim. Because not providing, at minimum, some type of attribution can lead to the ethical claim of plagiarism, if someone is going to share w/o permission or being covered by an exception, the share should provide attribution. When sharing, often the best thing is to see if the creator of work included some type of social share mechanism – embed code, notation of how to link/share, a share button for any of the social networks. If there is a social share mechanism it's always best to use that because there is code embedded that maintains the tracking. It's the cut/paste, screenshots, downloads that often create the problems.” (NOTE: this is not legal advice from Sara Hawkins, this is a public commentary on social media and used with permission.)

A fantastic point made by my friend blogger and social media persona Megan Sheakowski, “Sometimes people you see share photos on social media have behind the scenes agreements with groups and networks they are in about sharing photos with credits and links. I myself share many photo posts over here and do have permission from hundreds of bloggers in my niche to use a photo on social media and on my blog, but the general reader would never know that.

I think people get into gray areas when they start to use what they see others doing as a best practice.  I am not a lawyer (although I used to have Supreme Court justice aspirations!) but think that a good rule of thumb would be to follow Sara Hawkins” advice regardless of what it looks like others are doing.”

You can, of course, contact the photographer or artist to request to use permission to use their photo or use your own photography. If you use your own photos, you might want to add a watermark to your image. You can do this in Photoshop, PicMonkey, or PicMarkr. Pic Markr lets you upload up to five images and add one watermark to them all.

I realize that this seems complicated but it really boils down to two main points:

1. If you don't have permission to use a photo or graphic, don't use it.

2. Cite all sources. Period.

I hope that this helps you learn a bit more and make more informed decisions on your photo usage. Remember, just because everyone else is doing something, it doesn't make it right. Be a good social media citizen and don't' t tarnish your reputation.

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    1. Hi im new to blogging, if i was to use a picture of an item of clothing from a store like H &M would that be copyright infringement? Thanks

  1. Great post!  I get asked this a lot, as well as where in the post should the credit be written.  I like how you add them at the bottom.

    1. tamirossmanagement I do it consistently the same throughout places that I write, I think that it’s very easy to remember when it’s part of your writing process. Glad you liked it!

  2. Really great info – I am sharing! Everyone should have this information!

      1. PegFitzpatrick dishofdailylife No problem!! I use my own photos or stock photos, but I love how you gave us other alternatives here too. I think it’s really important info that people should be aware of. Thanks for sharing it!!

  3. I am guilty of not following these guidelines. #convicted. Peg, I love your posts, but this one made me sad.

  4. “Common sense may say that an artist wants exposure for their work” yes and common sense says I can pay for advertising and marketing, If i get paid for the work that people freely steal without so much as a thought.

  5. This has always been somewhat “cloudy” for me. Thanks for clarifying some things. Appreciate it!

  6. The problem with Creative Commons from a site like Flickr is you could still get into trouble if someone has uploaded a copyrighted image under the commons license. Just taking a copyrighted image off your site doesn’t get you out of trouble. Just ask anyone who’s ever gotten “getty’d”. I’m no lawyer, but if I use a commons image I always attribute it with a link to that person at the bottom of the post. I also save a copy of the image page showing that it was under a creative commons license (as a PDF). No guarantee that’d get me out of trouble, but at least it shows when I used the image I thought it was under a commons license.

    1. MikeHale Great point. I always wonder what happens when people decide to stop allowing their photos to be downloaded. What if you had downloaded it before when it was allowed? So many gray areas.

  7. The real problem with Creative Commons is this,…it is also an agreement that most people violate. It was not meant for people to use to make a profit, or not pay to “have” worlk. People violate that because we as a people do not read the agreement, We just clik OK to all the legalese so we can get to what we want. Then you get sued and you dont understand that you violated an agreement.

  8. I choose to generally ignore the rules (within reason) – mostly because if someone wants to cause trouble, they’ll find a reason.
    For instance, someone can easily share an image that’s not their own under Creative Commons; I’ve seen it happen time and time again.
    Nonetheless, it’s good to be aware of the legalese.

  9. I am always too much afraid of to use images found via Google search. You made it very simple and easy to understand and for sure I am going to apply them in future.

  10. Great info, thanks. I like searching flickr for images to use, the embedding is made easy.
    I always wondered a few things. What if the owner changes the licensing options later to not allow people to use it? Or what if it said free to use but it’s not really their picture? For the last question I guess the chrome extension can come in handy.

    1. Tubeblogr I wonder this too “What if the owner changes the licensing options later to not allow people to use it? ” I don’t know what happens in this case. Sorry. I wish I knew.

      1. PegFitzpatrick Tubeblogr When you get the picture and use it, the terms apply to that use. so you may use that photo for that purpose on that website for the license period, Free would have been forever under that concept unless there were terms to the contrary. If later on the terms change, you are lucky as long as you never take the picture down, at that point you would have to abide by the new terms.
        As for the second part? if it wasnt theres to give,….its not yours to have, and you could be just as liable in a lawsuit as the person who stole it in the first place.

  11. Copyright is so general. Once you have published a photo, text, etc., it is automatically protected by copyright law. Best way to avoid any issues is to get permission from the owner, or create your own material.

    1. MZazeela exactly,..Kinda like do your own work, its worth it,…if ya cant do the work then just buy some. If it is worth stealing, it is worth buying

  12. PegFitzpatrick TubeblogrI believe copyright owner can assign their copyright on an exclusive basis and the copyright license holder can provision (i) Royalty Free License (ii) Negotiate Usage (iii) Waive intellectual rights. It all depends on how the assignment is written. This subject has become an obsession of mine as of late. Lot’s to talk about.

  13. I have a strange question. If someone takes a screenshot of a TV show, then ‘edit’ it (change cropping, photoshop it to B&W or sepia etc) and puts it up on Tumblr, Flickr, FB. Is it ‘theirs’? Can they then tell people not to ‘steal’ it because they own the image. I wonder that because the TV was never theiers to begin with, can anything they do that to be theirs legally?

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