Does Copyright Law Even Matter for Images Anymore?

Every online marketer worth their salt understands the importance of having decent imagery on their websites, blogs and social media. How convenient, then, that we now have access to vast banks of photos and graphics at the mere click of a button. Using images from the internet is easy – simply copy and paste (or worst case scenario, Print Screen, edit and upload), and the job’s a good’un.

Well, until you get sued for copyright infringement. A bit dramatic, perhaps, but contrary to popular belief, fair use of images is still important and people do still suffer the consequences of getting it wrong. And ignorance isn’t bliss, either. (Don’t believe me? Read this story.)

The Digital Age has brought about a culture of image sharing, repinning and reproduction, where it feels as though everything belongs to everyone and nobody owns anything. But if that were really the case, how would photographers and graphic designers ever get paid for their work? There must still be laws in place to protect the rights of artists, so how exactly do these work?

What to remember when using images from the web

DISCLAIMER: I’m not a lawyer, and this is not intended as legal advice. It is simply a summary of the information that I have gleaned from across the web and should be treated with due caution.

In our age of ‘disposable’ content, there are several widespread misconceptions about using and reproducing images from the internet. Which of the following statements do you believe to be true?

  • You’re not doing anything wrong so long as the pictures are only used for personal and not commercial purposes.
  • Provided you credit the artist or photographer and link back to their website, you’re basically providing them with free advertising so there shouldn’t be a problem.
  • You can put a disclaimer on your site to absolve yourself from liability.
  • It isn’t copying so long as the images are embedded and not saved on your server.
  • All you need to do is take the image(s) down as soon as you receive a DMCA notice.

The answer? None of them.

Unless you have either received express permission from the copyright holder or are using public domain images or images that hold the necessary Creative Commons license, you are violating copyright law.

For me, some of these revelations were a bit of an eye opener, especially when you consider social media sites that basically rely on their users to repost content, such as Pinterest and Tumblr. If you read the small print, both state that if you load something onto their site you are claiming it as your own – and this includes Pin Its and Tumble Its.

I won’t recount the precise words that came to mind when I discovered this. But the initial panic soon subsided when I thought about the millions of people who must be violating image copyright. Surely they can’t all be prosecuted? Moreover, shouldn’t it be the social media sites themselves that are held liable for encouraging copyright infringement on such a massive scale?

And then there’s my earlier point about free advertising. What about those artists who benefit from the added exposure provided by such sites, and enjoy more sales as a result?

Well, I read several horror stories whilst researching this article and while I don’t plan on losing too much sleep over this, I’m certainly not going to be taking any chances. From now on, I will only pin from websites that have a Pin It button, and even then, I’ll try to make sure the site is using its own copyrighted images as there’s still a fair chance that the site owners themselves are unaware of the rules. Better safe than sorry, after all.

What images can be reproduced on websites, blogs and social media?

Creative Commons-licensed photos are usually free to use commercially and/or non-commercially, provided the correct attribution is provided along with a link back to the photographer’s site. A free search engine can be found here, but be sure to follow their key to the different licenses to ensure that you attribute the images correctly.

Wikimedia Commons is another useful source of Creative Commons-licensed images, including some that are in the public domain (i.e. copyright-free). When you click on each picture, a little Creative Commons logo appears to the bottom right of the page with a link to further information on the license and any restrictions that apply.

Another option is to take out a subscription to a stock image provider like ShutterStock, which can be expensive initially but you’ll have access to high quality images for the duration of your subscription (depending on the package). There are also several sites offering ‘free’ images, but bear in mind the old adage that ‘nothing in life is free’ – at least if you want images of a decent quality and size, and with no attribution required.

Another good first port of call is, a search engine for free photos that provides licensing information for each resource. However, as with all other sources of free images, you should treat this with caution as indicated in the Terms of Use:

“Although we provide information as to the license of each photo, this information was accurate only at the time of indexing, and we provide no gaurantee [sic] that this is still the case. It is the responsibility of the user, before making use of any media, to visit the hosting site of the image, and check the license there applied, and comply with all of the restrictions.”

Unless you have received written permission to use them, this is the only way to be certain that the images you reproduce on your site are used legally. Yes, it’s time consuming, and sure, it may be erring on the side of paranoia, but it’s the law that we’re dealing with here and you can’t afford to be complacent, even if you have managed to get away with image copyright violations in the past.

A far less radical but oft-overlooked way to get around the problem is to take your own photos. You don’t have to be a great photographer; just display your products creatively and take a picture. Snap some before and after shots of the projects you carry out for your clients, and photograph your team at work. You could even take your camera phone out on a sunny day to collect imagery of a more abstract nature, such as a cloudy sky, an office block or a Caution sign.

The full picture

Using images from the internet is sensitive business, but hopefully by now you should feel a little more confident about what should and shouldn’t be done. Here are some basic rules of thumb to take away with you:

  • Check the licensing restrictions on all the images you reproduce
  • Use image sharing and social media sites like Pinterest with care
  • Assume that all images are copyrighted until you have proof to the contrary
  • Remember that giving credit isn’t the same as having permission
  • If in any doubt, contact the artist or photographer requesting permission


And here is some further reading in case you would like to research the topic in more detail:

Copyright Notice: digital images, photographs and the internet – Intellectual Property Office

Copyright Fair Use and How it Works for Online Images – Social Media Examiner

Blogger Beware: You CAN Get Sued For Using Photos You Don’t Own on Your Blog –