sharing images online warning
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There is a great deal of misconception when it comes to finding and sharing images online. The large majority of people sharing images online are doing it wrong. They have no idea that the way in which they are sharing them can actually get them banned, blacklisted or even prosecuted in a court of law!

Not only that, but those of us who understand the best practices notice when someone is sharing without regard to copyright or attribution. This can hurt your online reputation and mark you as a bad internet citizen.

Have no fear because in this post I’m going to cover everything you need to know about the legal side of sharing images online.

If you want to skip past the legal mumbo-jumbo and go straight to the How to part, click here. (I don’t recommend skipping the legal mumbo-jumbo though. I’ve spent a lot of time making it very simple and it’s always good to be more educated on a subject as highly complex as this.)

This is part of the Essential Guide to Sharing Images Online Series. You can find the rest of the posts in this series here.

Destroying the Myths

There is a great deal of misinformation and gross misunderstanding about image sharing. The good folks over at Legal123 have created the infographic below which tackles the 5 greatest myths.

copyright infringement infographic

Key takeaways from the infographic:

  • No matter what you see other people doing, just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean you’re free to share it.
  • Just because you give someone else credit or attribution doesn’t mean you’re free and clear.
  • Just because you’re not making a profit from it doesn’t make it right.

Bottom line– unless the owner or creator of the image has clearly stated that the work is free to use and share, you don’t have the right to use it. Period.

An Example Most of Us Can Relate To

We’re specifically talking about images in this series but to give a parallel example that we are all familiar with, allow me to take you back to grade school.

Do you remember your teacher telling you that it is wrong to copy someone else’s work and pass it off as your own? We’ve all gotten the plagiarism talk in one form or another right?

Well imagine that I’m surfing the internet and I come across a quote in a blog post that I think is really good. I decide I want to share it out to my social networks. So what I do is copy the quote and just paste it into a new Google+ post with no link to the source and no citation of the author.

That’s plagiarism right? And that’s not something honest people do right? Okay good. So why would it be okay to copy and paste someone else’s image and share it without giving them credit?

Now when it comes to works such as images, it’s crosses the line quickly from just plagiarism to being copyright infringement. What most people don’t know is that violating copyright in this manner can actually get your social media account deleted without notice.

That’s right– deleted. Without notice. All it takes is for one copyright owner to file a complaint and goodbye Google+, Twitter, or Facebook account! Or worse, if you’re using copyrighted images without permission on your website or blog, enough complaints can get you blacklisted by search engines.

Or worse yet, you can be taken to court! This is rare, but still a possibility if you’ve made a large amount of violations.

So bottom line, share responsibly. How do you do that? Well I’m glad you asked!

How to Share Images Online Responsibly and Legally

1. Search for Images that are Free To Share

When you go to search for a sharable image, be sure that part of your search criteria is that the image is free to use and share.

This is easy in Google image search. Just hit the gear icon (shown below) and click on Advanced search. Then you can scroll down to the Usage rights section and select the Free to use and share option.

Google image searchGoogle image search 2Google advanced image search

2. Look or Ask for Permission

There are some artists or photographers who are okay with people using their images as long as they give proper attribution. They will make it clear somewhere on their website that they are perfectly okay with people using their photographs as long as a link is provided back to the original. Trey Ratcliff is a great example of this– see his Licensing page here.

So before you grab an image from a website, take a minute to search for their policy on the use of their images. If you cannot find an obvious policy, contact the creator and ask permission.

I’ve been asked permission on many occasions by folks who want to use my images in presentations and such. You know what my response is every time? “Sure! Thanks for asking!”

Most artists don’t mind that you want to share their work, but they want to maintain some degree of control and attribution. By respecting their work and asking permission, you may also make a friend in the process.

I’ve done this with several photographers and have always gotten a positive response.

Let’s Make the Internet A Better Place

share images responsibly

[Cue the warm and fuzzy inspirational music.]

Look, people will always take and steal other people’s work and pass it off as their own. In fact right now, this blog post and the images in it have probably been copied and pasted into a dozen spam sites, and I haven’t even hit Publish yet. It’s that big of a problem.

But you can make a difference. If you resolve to share responsibly, to be a good internet citizen, to give credit where credit is due and to stop supporting those who are knowingly (or unknowingly) stealing other people’s hard work, we can make a better internet. Set the example, rise above the standard, and it will always come back to you for the better!

In my next post in this Sharing Images Online series I have given you my best places to find free images online to use and share.

Until then, what questions do you have regarding the legality of sharing images online? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Bonus Reading

For further reading, the ever-awesome Peg Fitzpatrick, the incredible Ana Hoffman and expert attorney Sara Hawkins have written great pieces on the subject:

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Comments

  1. Chris C says

    Okay. I understand and agree with the main points and morals. I just have a teeny irritation…(not with you) just with the whole: “STEALING A PICTURE OR A PIECE OF WORK AND THEN PASSING IT OFF AS YOUR OWN” . …And I’m sure this is not exclusively your beef, but for people like me, I mean, the first thing that comes to MY MIND, is, “COME ON!!” seriously? I am not trying to STEAL anyones work and try to pass it off as mine! That comes to be an absolute ridiculous thought in my head!! Its not that serious to me!!! I just see omething cute and reshare it or whatever. Maybe because I am not here to promote anything or myself, or to become “popular” . I just happened apon this place in July and got a little addicted because it was fun!! But all this is all kind of shocking to me that this would be so stressful that now I have to worry about a million things before I post. I used to come here to relax and get away and be loved and accepted by people, and bond, and relate and get a good laugh or a good cry, now its getting to be all bout money again, \I think unfortunately, I guess I am kidding my self if I ever though that something could just be pure and innocent fun……..ON THE OTHER HAND, I DO UNDERSTAND that if I worked real real hard on something I might get u[set if I was not recognized for it, but honestly I prob. wouldn’t get that upset about it enough to risk hurting peoples feelings or makinga big to do about it, but lines have to be drawn about certain things or types of work, or if like, money is freaking being made with it, then I could understand……..

    • says

      Yea, it’s really not that complicated if you think about it this way– when you share something without giving credit people will (despite your intent) perceive it is your work or a work that isn’t valuable enough to be credited. It is fun, and really a great place when you respect people, their craft, and their works.

  2. says

    This may seem like a dumb question Dustin, but how does Pinterest get past this?

    I regularly copy visual quotes from Pinterest to Facebook or G+. If there is a link or source I never crop it out as some do, but often there’s not one, so what’s the deal there?

    When I have put quotes out there with my own domain I WANT people to copy and paste as do thousands of other people, so it’s really tricky for people to know when they are paying it forward and when they are ripping somebody off.

    It really does bug me when people upload quotes and don’t attribute it.

    • says

      Great question Tim. Likewise, how does Google get around it even with search results? This is something that I’ve come across but can’t quite articulate it simply. I’ll go back and see if I can find the article where I read about this.

  3. says

    These are all great reasons why the current copyright regime is broken and irrelevant to the digital age. Human culture is all about sharing, and the current copyright rules, which you have stated quite correctly, criminalize a very simple human activity that has been going on for ages. The only difference is that it has become a lot easier to copy and also these days nearly everyone is a creator or at least a prosumer (consumer?+producer) of information, including images. That means there are a lot more people in the creativity pool than there were when these rules were made up to protect the monopoly of a very small number of publishers. Human culture is a common, shared activity and copyright has to change to reflect that.
    Until then we’ll still need such posts…

    • says

      So you’re suggesting that because it’s easier to do something, then it should be allowed regardless of established ideas of ownership and copyright? Just trying to understand your stance.

      • says

        I’m saying that copyright has to change to accommodate and facilitate the kind of casual sharing and creativity that is now possible, otherwise we ‘re just criminalizing normal human behavior such as sharing and greatly limiting the contribution of the public to our common culture.
        This does not mean that artists do not retain their rights, just that enforcement has to be proportional to the context. People do not have to live in fear of having their blogs or sites wiped out or being sued for thousands of dollars just because they shared an image or used it in a mashup. That’s nuts.
        Common sense should prevail here: if you’re not selling the image or making money of of it, and you’re not plagiarizing and you give proper credit, or you’re just having fun – what’s the big deal? In other words, there should be a differentiation in the law between commercial use and non-commercial use.
        Thanks for asking!

        • says

          There is a differentiation between commercial and non-commercial use: the amount for which you can be sued. Here’s how that works:

          When I create an image, I own the copyright. If you infringe the copyright, I can sue you for what your use should have cost. If we’re talking about sharing an image on your non-commercial blog, the costs to use that image would fairly small. Suing may not even be worth the time and legal costs. If we’re talking about McDonald’s using my image on a series of billboards nationwide, I’m going to sue for a much larger amount. So what you’re asking for does, in effect, already exist. No judge in the US would hand a blog-sized infringer a burger-sized judgement.

          There is a further wrinkle, though. If I have my images registered with the US Copyright office (which costs $35 for a large batch of images), I can sue for the use of the image + my court costs + damages. The value of the image’s use wouldn’t change from the first scenario, but now it seems less risky for the creator to sue, because he’s not footing the bill for a high-priced attorney for a $300 infringement. But the value of the usage still, at least in theory, creates the differentiation you’re asking about.

  4. says

    Thanks for posting this, Dustin! Those of us who create things for a living really appreciate it. I recently had a non-profit (which I will not name) contact me and ask to use a picture I created. They claimed to be a small non-profit, and told me they couldn’t afford to pay, but offered a link whenever they use my work. I did some research (read the audited financial statements from the non-profit in question), and found that it’s an institution that brings in tens of millions of dollars per year in donations. They own property that is worth much more than that, and they have a large and well-paid staff. Even though I really like the organization in question, offering to use my work without pay is a real insult; it seriously denigrates the value of my work and my abilities. It says, “We’re willing to pay our staff a salary for the work they do, but the work of YOUR hands doesn’t have any financial value.”

    Still, I really respect that they asked to use my work, and I trust them not to steal it. The kind of respect that they showed by asking is part of the ethic that allows us to remain a society where people are able to create for a living. And they gave me the ability to say no, and to control my own work. This kind of communication keeps me from having to sue copyright infringers, and makes for a less litigious society overall.

    And for the previous commented (Chris C.) who contends that people accidentally steal photos or don’t intend to do so, you should spend some quality time at Photo Stealers (http://stopstealingphotos.com/). There are plenty of people who try to make their reputation using someone else’s work.

    - Andrew

    • says

      That’s so frustrating Andrew. I know these organizations often mean well, but they don’t really think through what they’re asking. To their credit, at least they asked instead of just taking.

      Great resource btw (re: Photo Stealers)!

  5. says

    I have a question. How do I find out if my images have been infringed on? It’s pretty easy to do a text search, but what about image searches for my own images?

    • says

      Heather, there are a few other services you can use, as well:

      http://www.tineye.com is a reverse image search engine. You can feed it an image, and it’ll find other places that the image is posted online. It’s cool for a single image, but it doesn’t crawl through your entire site to see if any of your images is found anywhere else. That would be a super-cool feature, though.

      http://www.imagerights.com is a service that offers to monitor 1,000 images for you (for free) to see if they’ve been posted anywhere online. They take care of recovering the value of the image, but only catch is that they keep half of the amount recovered. I have not tried using them, but it seems like a cool service.

      And for those who are wondering why we still have the copyright laws we do, they are to prevent this kind of thing from happening: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/22/us-media-copyright-twitter-idUSBRE9AL16F20131122. If someone infringes copyright on a personal blog, it’s one matter. I still argue that personal use should be protected, because ALL of the images I sell are for personal use. If people were free to do anything they wanted with those images, I’d lose my ability to feed my family. But when our leading news organizations, who should ALL know better, take an image off of Twitter for their corporate gain, we need laws on the books to hold them accountable.

  6. Carolyn says

    Great article Dustin. I completely agree with the necessity of copyright law.
    For those who disagree, here’s another analogy that may help.
    Nike creates a pair of shoes and you like them. Do you just walk into a store and take them, or do you walk into the store and purchase them ? It truly is that simple.
    Here’s where it gets confusing. What about when I purchase a tune online and decide to post it on my FB page ? I’ve purchased the product, does the fact that I’ve paid for it give me permission to use it as I wish ?

    • says

      Carolyn, that’s a great question. A lot of people are confused about the rights they have when they buy access to a piece of intellectual property.

      When you ‘buy’ a song or photograph or any other piece of IP, you’re actually only licensing it for specific uses. If you go outside the terms of that license, you’re infringing the creator’s copyright. Think about this in terms of software: If you buy a copy of Microsoft Office, you’re buying only the right to install and use it on a certain number of computers. You can’t use that software for other purposes (like resale), because you’ve only licensed it for a narrow use case. If you start packaging it up and selling it or making it available for people to download or use for free, you’re now infringing the copyright, and both Microsoft and a judge are guaranteed to take a dim view of your defense that you paid for a copy of the software.

      But there are companies other than Microsoft (think Dell) who sell Microsoft Office pre-installed on computers. How do they get away with that? Because they bought one copy and they’re so big that a judge just looks the other way? Nope. It’s because they’ve paid Microsoft a heckuva’ lot of money, and Microsoft decides it’s in their best interest to take the money and increase their distribution channels. In the same way, if you want to use a piece of IP for a use case outside the terms of the license under which you purchased it, the creator has the right to either charge more or tell you that you can’t use their stuff in that way.

      So the short answer is no, you can’t buy a song and post it without getting permission. But I hope my explanation makes clear why this is the case.

      *Dustin, I hope I haven’t left too many comments. This is a great post, and it just happens to be a topic about which I’m passionate. (Because it impacts my livelihood.)

  7. Carolyn says

    Andrew,

    I expect the site I purchased the song from probably also has an explanation as to the terms of purchase, although I also expect their explanation may not be as clear as yours was (legal terms and all).

    Thank you for taking the time to help me, and possibly others, understand this complicated issue.

  8. says

    Quotes are often easily traceable to the original writer or speaker. Once we find out who gets the attribution, we can quote the person and credit them without seeking permission.

    Images are an entirely different matter. It’s very hard to trace them back to a source, and then one always has to obtain permission, except in rare cases where permission is explicitly granted on the photographer or artist’s website.

    Since every photographer and artist knows how easily their work can spread through social media and become disassociated with them, why do they hardly ever bother to add a visible watermark or bold signature to their work?

    It seems like the answer is simple. We can look carefully at each image, and if we see any sign of life behind the image (a stamp or signature), we do not share without explicit permission.

    If someone photoshops an image to remove or alter any such mark, then you have a real culprit on your hands: Go after them.

    • says

      These days, a Google image search is almost as easily done as a text search. Some artists believe that a watermark disrupts the art itself. In most cases, I would agree. Most photographers don’t have a watermark that will look good when placed onto a photo. So unfortunately I don’t think your solution holds up. It might make it easier on you, but trying to say “It’s their fault for not marking it” certainly wouldn’t hold up in court.

  9. says

    Another idea would be to put a small “s” (sharable) or “n” (non-sharable) in one corner of each image.

    What happens to the rights of people who WANT their images to be shared and who actually profit from that, if we stop sharing virtually all images? Obtaining permission is impractical for most people.

    It’s also somewhat Orwellian, and I think freedom begins in our minds. I especially don’t want young people to feel shackled and bound by invisible chains.

    • says

      A simple solution, but again requiring the artist to disrupt their art and their workflow. Obtaining permission is impractical in the sense that it takes an extra step or two– but that’s not your right to decide how an artist treats their work. It’s all too easy to find free, sharable images to use if you want to. I’m guessing you’re not an artist yourself, or you might think differently about what it is you’re trying to justify.

  10. says

    I’m all for respecting artists’ and photographers’ rights. I have properly attributed every image on my blog. The only images on my blog with no attribution are ones that I created. If it becomes important to me that people don’t share my own artistic creations without crediting me, I will add a copyright link to the images. If my salary were ever to be dependent on the sale of self-created images, I would also add a legible signature and possibly a watermark to each of them.

    I’ve seen image galleries on the web with watermarked images. This is understandable and appropriate since those images are for sale. Another thing I’ve seen artists and photographers do is restrict the size of the images that they upload to the Internet. (Notice the words “they upload”). A small image can definitely be big enough to attract the attention of people and organizations who want to use a larger version. In fact, I’m more likely to find out who created an image if I have to search for it (in an attempt to find a larger size) than if it’s just sitting there nice and pretty the way everyone likes it. Image creators have to decide whether they want people to find out who shot the photo or created the artwork, or whether they want image shares.

    While it’s true that image creators may get a reduced number of casual vistors because of watermarks or a reduced image size, life always has its tradeoffs, right? Pardon the language, but marketing is a “bitch” for all of us. Welcome to the real world.

    If your images are good, marketing is a lot easier than for those of us who have written a book since it takes approximately 0.1 second to look at an image. Speaking of which, book writers are also dependent on image creators since we need a thing called book covers.

    Even if companies like Twitter and YouTube sometimes ban accounts, this is often hypocritical since the Internet is highly dependent on relatively free image sharing. Where would multi-billion dollar corporate sites like Facebook, Google, and Twitter be without it?

    Searching for image rights every time we want to share a cat picture is an extreme burden for small businesses, but medium to large businesses should do it. Even small businesses and ordinary people should refrain from image sharing when there’s a question about whether it may violate an artists’ rights. This brings me back to my main point…

    Do for-profit photographers and artists bear some burden for not uploading high-resolution, unmarked images in the first place? Absolutely! As I said, a lot of them are already doing that instead of only complaining like prima donnas about everyone who has ever shared a picture of God’s creation on the Internet.

  11. Carolyn says

    Great article Dustin ! Completely agree with the necessity of sharing credit where credit is due.

    In an effort to accurately (and legally) post works by others, I’ve been checking out the Creative Commons site.
    http://wiki.creativecommons.org/Marking/Users – this link shows the correct way to attribute works.
    Although I get what is required, being very new, I don’t understand how to do it.

    Example – shown beneath “This is an ideal attribution” are the links for the title, author, source, and CC license. How are these pretty, tiny links created ??? When I try to create the same title link it looks like this, http://www.flickr.com/photos/sixteenmilesofstring/8256206923/in/set-72157632200936657. Yikes !

  12. says

    What do you say about websites that say the image they have is free to use but really isn’t. How can I absolutely protect myself and run a website or is there always risk? Even if I Google and use the Free to Share there is a chance its not. Thank you for the article. It gave some great points that I wasn’t aware of.

  13. MaryAnn Fitzharris says

    Thanks, dustin. I have a sticky question. I took photos of street art in San Francisco, where they paint garage doors and then–a few months later–paint over them. The art is fabulous and I’d love to use my photos of the art and credit the artists, and i’m trying to find out how to find their names. My question is:
    it’s their art, but it’s my photo. So do I own the right to use the photo? What if I can’t find out the artist’s name and give credit? Can I still use it?

    any idea where I can find the answer to this specific problem?

  14. Debs says

    Great article. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series :)

    I’d like to be clear about sharing photos on social media. Particularly google+ but I suspect it applies to all social media. What is and isn’t considered commercial.

    If you’re using an image just to pretty up a simple post on your page, is that commercial? Technically any comment between my page and a follower is marketing even if it’s a simple ‘good morning everyone – what’s going on today’ kind of post. Would a post like that from my profile, also be commercial? If I were being pedantic (which I often am – sorry world) I’d argue it could be.

    I see it all the time, with photographers credited for the picture, but that doesn’t mean it’s legal, though if you’ve tagged the photographer in, its pretty easy for them to tell you they’re not happy about it.

    I’m ok with what can and can’t go on a website, but putting full attribution and licence link to a photo shared on social media seems like a lot. I’ve certainly never seen it done. Which I’m aware doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Pictures on a website it’s easy enough to put small buttons under the image to link to the relevant info, I just get all kinds of unclear about how it should be done not to mention the technical side of how to actually do it, for social media.

    I suspect it’s not a simple question to answer, as I’ve been searching for 2 days (like most of the day for 2 days) and I can’t find anything that give a clear and straight answer on this.

  15. Chris Beveridge says

    The only problem I see with this article, is it’s not quite accurate when it comes to copyright ownership, as it is affected by the TOS of each individual Social Network and sharing service. Many of the major networks are granted a license “in perpetuity” to anything you upload, and may reuse and share as they see fit, without the n need to notify you. I think to anyone who deals with images and/or photos professionally, that’s a particularly important distinction that I see a lot of other designers and photographers misunderstanding.

    • says

      I’m not connecting your thought here Chris– so, since a social network has their own ToS, that negates copyright ownership? So I can upload someone else’s photo and that doesn’t matter because I posted it to a social network that has their own ToS?

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