Credit where credit is due: images and copyright

How to avoid copyright problems

A guide to images and copyright law

You’ve drafted, re-drafted, honed and refined your copy so it perfectly conveys your message.

And now you’ve finally tracked down the perfect image to illustrate your point – but have you checked whether you’re legally allowed to use it?

It’s said that copying is the sincerest form of flattery, and while in many respects true, copying can land you in considerable trouble when it comes to images used on your website or marketing materials.

The key issue here is copyright and when and how it applies.

In the UK copyright (the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something) arises automatically when an image is created.

And don’t assume that just because you own an image you can use it as you wish. While this might appear logical, it’s not in fact the case. It’s only the copyright owner, generally the creator of the image, that has the right to reproduce the image as and when they wish.

It’s also not safe to assume that just because an image doesn’t have the copyright symbol ⓒ that it’s not protected by copyright. As the Government points out in their guidance: Sometimes uploading and downloading images causes the associated metadata to be removed accidentally. Metadata is embedded within the image and can give details of the copyright owner.

So where to find useable images?

One such place is Creative Commons Search (CC search), CC Search is where you can find openly licensed and public domain works. Creative Commons, the non-profit behind CC Search, is the maker of the CC licenses, used over 1.4 billion times so far to help creators share knowledge and creativity online.

CC licenses are the legal tools that creators can use to offer certain usage rights to the public, while reserving other rights. If you want to find an image you can legally use then you can use CC Search and just make sure you abide by the conditions of re-use.

Google Image search meanwhile also lets you filter (using the ‘Tools’ tab under the search bar) images by their usage rights but Google doesn’t accept responsibility for the reliability of the results – check the terms of use at source where you can to be on the safe side.

There are then stock image agencies like iStock and Shutterstock. With these agencies you pay a fee to download and use the image, this is essentially a one off fee so that you’re not paying the image creator a royalty every time you use the image.

Using stock image agencies can reduce a lot of the work you might otherwise have to do in checking copyright and the relevant image license. However, you do still need to be careful of the difference between what images you can be used for.

The two key types are creative and editorial. With editorial images you have to be more careful as they generally can’t be used can’t be used for commercial, promotional, advertorial or endorsement purposes. Instead they’re usually only to be used in connection with events that are newsworthy or of general interest (for example, in a blog, textbook, newspaper or magazine article).

For more information on images you can and can’t use, as well as placement and how best to use visual elements to achieve your objectives:

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