How do I know if images from the Internet have Copyright?

September 11, 2019

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Here is a brief guide to understanding copyright and proper use of images from the Internet

In an era where everything is just a click away, it is sometimes difficult to find out what you can and cannot use from the Internet.

Well, let’s try to clarify.

How do you deal with copyright and pictures from the Internet?

The first thing you need to know before using an image that you did not create yourself is that generally speaking, all of them are protected by some form of copyright.

Nothing unexpected, right?

However, this might get more complicated when they come from online sources. Websites can actually restrict the use of the images they provide. But we’ll get back to that.

First things first, one factor that you want to be aware of is related to this symbol: ©. Look familiar?

It is the symbol or sign for copyright, and it’s used to notify that works are protected by it.

However, truth is, it doesn’t necessarily have to be present in the picture’s information in order for the image to be protected. Although it will always be somehow associated with the image’s metadata. So be careful when downloading images from the internet and examine whether you can actually use the image for the intended purpose.

Okay, but how do I do that?

How to be safe when using pictures from the internet?

Obviously, the safest way is by having explicit permission given by either the creator or the website supplying it.

However, when it comes to images you find online, it would be too laborious to find the photographer who took each image and ask his/her for permission to use it.

But there are other options, although they may not be the easiest. For instance, you can use an image when it’s downloaded directly from the creator’s website if the owner states so on the website. Note that the image must also have the owner’s permission for third parties to use it.

Well, you might think that all platforms have the necessary permission. Bad news:

That is not always the case. Some platforms have not cleared the permission. So what is the consequence?

Ultimately, if you were to use an unlicensed image the consequences can vary from being asked to buy a license to getting a fine or, worst case, being brought to court. Additionally, you might have to withdraw all campaigns and material wherever the image is used.

Ouch… this can hurt big time for your bank account.

We always recommend that you read the “terms and conditions” section before using images from any online platform.

The conclusion is quite simple: be careful and stay legal (1).

Types of copyright licenses

To know if you can use images found on the internet or not, here are the different licenses(2):

  • Copyright: this is the most restrictive license and it is the default one if a creator does not select another. Basically, whoever wants to use an image with a Copyright must both ask for permission and pay to the author.
  • Copyleft: was created in the early 80s as the license opposite to Copyright. It aims to guarantee every user’s right to use, modify and redistribute a product or image. Of course, this use should always stick to the usage and dissemination conditions.
  • Creative Commons (CC): It allows creators to decide which rights they would like to retain and which to transfer to others. However, keep in mind that even if a work has this license ,it can also have Copyright. Since CC is the most common one on the internet, here we briefly mention its conditions (3):
    • An author willing to have a CC license has to choose which rights he/she would like others to have over it. These being attribution, non-commercial, no derivative works, and share alike.
    • The image should always include the acronym CC + “Some Rights Reserved”. If it’s online, it should link to the Common Deed, which is the specific conditions of the license.
    • Another possibility is that the author decides not to retain any rights. This is known as CC0 “No Rights Reserved”, so it will be part of the public domain.

OK, now we have the different licenses in place. But you might be thinking:

Which licenses do the various image platforms have? What are the restrictions?

What websites don’t tell you about their licenses

The fact that a stock photos website has a CC0 license doesn’t directly entail that it will be this way forever. As we all know, the word “free” is always an effective bait to get users to subscribe and use their service. However, after a while, this method is not affordable anymore.

And here is where the story begins.

Some platforms then decide to change their license to a less open one (4). This can have negative consequences for the users.  If the company decides that the images under their new overwritten licenses can no longer be used for specific purposes, then you have to follow these new rules. This could mean stopping your current marketing campaigns if the company decides you cannot use the photos, having to pay somehow, either a membership or per downloaded image.

But hey! They are not as clear as they can be when it comes to notifying these changes.

And the bad news is:

They can change the terms of their license from one day to another without you noticing. And you can get a fine if you don’t respect the new policy.

Nevertheless, there is something that might interest you. The license CC0 can’t be changed, which means that what was once CC0 will always be CC0. There’s some relief…

The problem comes when a user has to identify which images are CC0 – and therefore cost-free – and which are not. This can be tricky because, as we mentioned before, images from the Internet don’t always have to show the Copyright icon for them to be protected by it. Of course, every change should be mentioned, once again, in the “terms and conditions” section. But don’t expect the website to make a big announcement about their license change. Otherwise, where is the business for them?

Copyright also has legal exceptions

In case you might be wondering:

Yes, there is an exception that might stop you from having legal issues in the future. Although a court would have the final responsibility for deciding, there are four factors that will determine the outcome. These are:

  1. The effect that this use has on the potential market of the copyrighted work.
  2. The nature of the picture from the Internet.
  3. The portion of the work that has been used.
  4. And finally and most importantly, the purpose of its use. This last one may save you from paying expensive fines for using copyrighted work. For instance, if you are talking about a certain piece of art it is understandable that you will add an image of it in order for readers to understand better.

Of course, keep in mind that there are limits to this “freedom” that should always be respected (5).

Some facts about image copyright that you might ignore

We all have surely heard about image copyright at some point. But there might be some interesting facts that are not commonly known but can help you understand it better. Here you have some!

  • There is some controversy as to whether an old picture that has been digitalized has a new copyright or not. In this regard, the EU denies this belief if the aim of digitalization is just offering a “retouched reproduction”.
  • In some European countries, images are protected by copyright for 70 years after the creators’ death. This is often known in some countries as “ life plus 70 ” (6) .
  • There are generally two types of rights in every country’s copyright laws: economic and moral. Economic rights include the image’s reproduction, distribution, communication, and transformation. On the other hand, moral rights are focused on guaranteeing the author’s identification, integrity, and first divulgation.
  • Although copyright laws may be similar internationally, there are still some conditions that are not covered by some legislations. Therefore, what might be legal in one country could be a violation in another.

But what if you still want to download pictures from the internet?

If you want to be safe

Nowadays there are plenty of websites under the title “Free images to download”. These will surely get hundreds of leads from users trying to find the perfect image for their websites.

What the users might not know is that these websites do not always have the right to distribute images. Furthermore, some of the websites do not have permission from the people portrayed in the images for them to be used for commercial purposes, for instance.

In the long run, it might end up causing legal problems for those individuals who believe them blindly.

But there is an alternative to these uncertain platforms! Some smaller companies are covering the legal aspects while offering a catalog of images to subscribers.

Here at JumpStory, we believe that all images under the Creative Commons 0 license should stay that way. We want to guarantee legal safety to small and medium companies in need of visual content on a daily basis.

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