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Entrepreneurship Month: Tips for Using Website Images the Legal Way

All you have to do to acquire the photo or image you need for a web page is to do a quick search for it online and grab whatever you happen to run across, right? After all, the internet is all about free information, why not free images? Plus, Google image search allows you to search only by image, which can make it far easier to find what you need for any digital project.

While you may be tempted by this quick and easy solution to your image sourcing challenge, there are risks to operating this way. Just because you find a photo you like online doesn’t mean it’s automatically yours to use. Here, we discuss the dangers of copying and using images found on the internet for your website and ways to source images that you can use without violating copyright laws. We will use the term “images” broadly to include any visual works, such as illustrations, charts, photographs, infographics, and the like.


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Why can’t I copy and use images I found on Google image search on my website?

Usage rights for images that you find through image search are more than likely owned by an individual or a corporation. So if you want to use them, you’re obligated to contact the owners to request their approval. Sometimes, this approval comes with paying usage fees or other conditions. For instance, an image copyright holder could approve its use for a website or a publication, but not an advertisement. Other restrictions could include requiring proper attribution or acknowledgement to the image owner or photographer.

Using an image without permission could be violating someone’s copyright, which may lead to significant fines along with orders to remove it from your website or publication. Repeated failure to stop using it might lead to larger fines and larger civil liability.

There are also aesthetic reasons for following these rules. The images you find online through image search are usually low-quality files that won’t look as good as the original higher-quality versions. Some of these images might also include a watermark to prevent others from copying and using the image without permission. Properly purchasing an image and receiving permission will often allow you access to the higher-resolution version with the watermark removed.

What sources can I safely pull images from to use on my small business website?

There are a number of stock image websites that will allow you to legally use images from the site for free or for some form of payment. Wikimedia Commons has a collection of public domain photos, images, and audio files where the initial copyright holder has released their claims, sometimes in exchange for attribution or credit only, sometimes for nothing at all. The images you find here may or may not fit with your project, but if you can find something at Wikimedia, you can use the images there without much worry as long as you follow instructions for attribution if it is requested.

Other sites offer a blend of paid and free images. Pixabay is primarily free, but if you can’t find what you want there, you can try iStock (owned by Getty Images) and use a Pixabay code for a discount. iStock is a paid platform, as is Getty Images. Other paid platforms include Adobe Stock and ShutterStock. The paid platforms offer a variety of payment options, from a one-time purchase to various monthly subscriptions that include access to a certain number of images per month.  When you pay for an image on these platforms, you receive the right to use the images for the purposes outlined in the license agreements provided on the platform. In other words, you don’t own the images once you make your payment. You are paying for the right to use the images, and either the platform owner or the images’ original creators continue to own the images themselves.

If you are working with contractors for your website design, you might be legally responsible for any fines or penalties if they use an image without permission. So consider including language in your Website Design Agreement detailing what images are acceptable, that all necessary rights must be acquired with the images, and what stock image platform, if any, is preferred.

What if I want to use an image that’s not on a stock photo platform?

If you have your heart set on an image that is not on any stock photo or other media website, you will need to plan ahead and allow time for necessary back-and-forth communications with the image owner. The best way to avoid potential problems about your image usage is through good-faith communication.

Contact whoever owns the image you’re interested in and find out if they have any usage policies in place, including fees and attribution. The owner may have their own license agreement for you to sign. If not, you may want to have them sign a Copyright License Agreement, which will govern what you plan to do with the images and any fees you’re willing to pay.

Are there legal issues I should be aware of when creating my own images or photos?

If you’re doing your own photo shoot and including people in your photos, you might want to have them sign a Photo Release document, also called a Model Release. When the model signs this document, they are giving you permission to use their image and likeness for your particular needs. It will include payment terms, if any, and may prevent them from coming back later and requiring additional money or the removal of their image from your website or landing pages. Photo releases may be used for anyone included in a photo shoot, whether they be professional agency models or just members of the public.

Once you’ve created your own photo, you might consider copyright registration as a way to further protect your ownership rights. The U.S. Copyright Office has separate applications to file for copyright registration over published and unpublished photographs. 

Copyright law can be complex. Whether you’re trying to secure your own rights, you’re seeking permission to use the creative works of another, or you’re being threatened for possible copyright violations, Rocket Lawyer On Call® attorneys can provide advice and representation at an affordable price. 

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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