One of our most common queries looks like this:

“My boss wanted some graphics for our website, so I searched on the internet and found something that fit. I couldn’t see a copyright notice, so I figured it was okay to use. Did I just break the law?”

What is Copyright?

It’s a word we all use, but how many of us actually know what copyright is? It’s one of those murky legal concepts, like “damages”, “trespass” or “ethical politician”. Here are the most important facts.

  1. In most jurisdictions, copyright arises as soon as a work is ‘recorded in material form’ – saving, printing or clicking the shutter button is often all it takes for a copyright work to be born.
  1. An image can still be subject to copyright even if there is no copyright registration, copyright notice or watermark on or near the image or its source. Infringement can occur even if the infringer doesn’t intend to make money from the image.
  1. Unless explicitly stated otherwise, images on the internet are protected by copyright.

So, as a consumer of digital images, what practical steps can you take to avoid copyright infringement?

Use Stock Images

One solution is to subscribe to an online stock photo library. You can buy packages of licensed images for use across your website for a relatively small price. Be warned, though: stock images can be weird. We mean really weird. You might end up with a monthly subscription to ‘Lobsters Wearing Christmas Hats’. (Don’t believe us? Google it).

Typically, stock photos are licensed for commercial use, including online use on blogs, social media posts and websites. However, it’s always a good idea to check on the terms of use. Some licences may not cover use for products such as T-shirts, for example. Make sure to check the terms before promoting your designer range of Christmas Crustacean Clothes.

Open Licensing

Some image search engines have advanced filters that allow you to retrieve images based on licence type. For example, Google Images allows the user to filter for open licensed images. (This is, of course, the main reason most internet users know about image filters…)

Don’t get too lazy, though. Search engine categorisation is notoriously inaccurate. How often have you googled something like ‘tofu recipes’, only for Google to ask if you want a ‘tongue ring’? Before you use an image from a search engine, take the time to check out the website it came from. You don’t want to be snagged by any unexpected terms and conditions.

Hire a Professional

The internet is full of creative folks, many of whom are willing to work at extremely competitive rates (See: web content writers).

Generally speaking, a graphic designer will retain copyright ownership of any work they design for you, while you’ll be granted a licence to use the finished product. When working with a professional, review your agreement carefully. If in doubt, obtain legal advice.

Just Ask!

More often than not, a creator would be delighted to grant permission for use of their work. When using an original image from a website, try to contact the creator directly.

Ultimately, copyright issues can be summed up in one simple rule: Unless you have consent, assume that you don’t.

Ben Thorn