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Understanding Copyright Issues of Photos and Visual Images

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congerdesign / Pixabay

When I was a travel writer for the State of Indiana, one of the marketing principles we preached was “photos get more traffic than text, videos get more traffic than photos.”

In other words, visual elements will always attract more readers than a text-only article.

I’ve found this to be true myself: if I can include a photo in my article, that photo will appear when I link to the article on Facebook. And if a photo appears, more people are likely to click it.

A few years ago, Facebook even changed their algorithm to give more favorable exposure to status updates that included photos. And because social media marketers test the bejeezus out of everything, they tested this too, and found it to be true.

Which means writers of all stripes — nonfiction, short fiction, poetry, or bogus Yelp reviews — can boost their traffic by adding a visual element to their work. (I’ve been saying “photo,” but the same rules apply if you use clip art, a hand-drawn illustration, or even a video or audio clip.)

However, you can’t just grab photos off the Internet willy-nilly. That photographer’s work, just like your own article, may be copyrighted and get you into a lot of hot water if you’re caught using it. There are three basic licenses of images you’re allowed to use:

  • Licensed: You can purchase some usage rights from a photo provider, such as Getty Images or Adobe Stock. You can pay anywhere from $5 to $500 for the rights to use a particular photo. Larger photos cost more, but can be used for things like printing out for a giant mural. Small photos cost less, and are pretty much only usable on websites. So if you need something for your website, buy the small version.
  • Creative Commons: This is where you’re given permanent permission from the rights holder to use their creation. He or she has said, “anyone who wants to use this photo/text/sound/video may do so.” There are different levels of Creative Commons, but those state whether you can modify the image, sell a version of it, or just use it in general. If you’re just posting the photo on your blog or website, you can use any Creative Commons license. If you’re going to modify or sell it, do your research first. There are plenty of places to find Creative Commons photos, including Flickr and Pixabay.
  • Public Domain: These are photos that have fallen out of copyright protection, or were taken by a government entity (i.e. our taxes), which makes the available to the public. So photos taken by the WPA or even the National Park Service are available to use, as well as historic old photos that have fallen out of copyright. The best place to find these are the Flickr Commons project, Library of Congress, Wikipedia, and Wikimedia Commons. (The latter also has a large trove of Creative Commons photos, having retrieved most of Flickr’s Creative Commons photos.) And many large museums are releasing royalty-free images of all of their artwork (also this one or find more here, which means you could use your favorite Van Gogh painting as your computer wallpaper, if you wished.

Google Can Help

An easy place to find copyright-free images is to go to Google Images (images.google.com), and type in the name of the item you’re looking for.

But you’re not finished. Remember, you can’t just grab the first image you find!

You need to limit your search to only those photos you’re allowed to use. After you do your initial search and the results pop up, click the Tools button at the top of the page. Next, click the Usage Rights menu, and select Labeled for Reuse.

This will show you only those photos that have been declared Public Domain or Creative Commons photos, and you can use any of those. Be sure to double check that they really are licensed for re-use. I usually select photos from Wikimedia Commons or Pixabay, to make sure I haven’t picked a mislabeled photo.

Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

Finally, just like when we were in college, I always, ALWAYS, ALWAYS cite my sources when it comes to visual images. It’s better to protect yourself in case anyone comes to you and says their photo wasn’t available for reproduction.

Plus, it’s just common courtesy to name the original creator and source, because it could help that artist generate some further interest from future customers. (Also, posting that link may be a condition of the Creative Commons license.)

Some people will place this citation in the caption of each photo, while other people put theirs at the very bottom of the article or blog post. I always put mine at the bottom, and it looks like this:

Photo credit: Erik Deckers (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

Finally, I always link directly to the actual page where I found the photo, not just the primary domain. That way, if the artist ever removed the photo or the page disappeared, and then accused me of copyright violation, I can copy that URL, go to Archive.org and search for an archived version of the page, complete with the original photo and the license/permissions that were granted when I got it. (This has never happened to me, but one should always be prepared.)

Ultimately, the best photo to use is a photo you took yourself. But if you can’t manage that, look for Creative Commons or Public Domain licensed photos that you can use with permission. And if you’re in a bind, you can always license the photo, or better yet, just ask the rights holder for permission to use their image.

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Writer & Marketer

Erik Deckers is a professional writer and marketer. He has co-authored four books on social media marketing and personal branding, owns a content marketing agency, is a newspaper humor columnist, and was the Jack Kerouac House writer-in-residence for Spring 2016. The third edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself was launched in November and is available on Amazon, and in Barnes & Noble and other fine bookstores.

9 Responses

  1. Sara Tusek
    | Reply

    Hi, Erik, thanks for this article. I have a small publishing house and am very conscious of respecting copyright in my blogs and promotional materials. This is helpful.

  2. Sandra Elliot
    | Reply

    Excellent article. Well written and very useful. Thank you!

  3. Ken Pelham
    | Reply

    Great advice for us all, Erik! Thanks.
    Nice to see that you were a Kerouac House resident. Did you pick up his Beat while there?

    • Erik Deckers
      | Reply

      Not as much as I would have liked, but I did get a lot of work done. It was also a nice return to the bachelor life for a while. I haven’t lived on my own for 23 years, and this was a good reminder for why it’s not as much fun as having a family. (Although, it WAS nice to be able to eat Cap’n Crunch at 11:30 at night without being reminded about my cholesterol!)

  4. Su Gerheim
    | Reply

    Super article. Erik, this information will help us develop our newest contest for FWA. Cannot reveal details yet, but thank you for posting this. I really appreciate it!

  5. Maureen Jung
    | Reply

    Timely and useful as I work with others on my first anthology project. So often, even experienced writers have differences of opinion on the use of photos and their understanding of copyright.

  6. Marie Brack
    | Reply

    Understanding how to filter a search in Google images has been extremely helpful to me. Thanks!

  7. Elle Andrews Patt
    | Reply

    Great info! Thank you!

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