Understanding Copyright Law for Online Images

We’re all familiar with the term “copyright,” but what exactly does it mean?

In short, copyright is a form of intellectual property law. Whenever you create something original, copyright protects your creation from being used by others for personal or monetary gain. This protection extends across a large range of original works that include songs, architecture, and writing, among many others.

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So that photo you took and posted on Instagram? Protected by copyright. A poem you wrote and shared on your blog? Also protected by copyright. And even if you didn’t publish any of these things officially, they’re still protected by copyright. It’s an incredibly comprehensive measure of ensuring personal privacy and ownership.

Using Copyrighted Images: Permission and Fair Use

Obviously, if you are the creator of an image, you can use the image as you please. However, to use others’ copyrighted images, you must follow a certain set of rules.

The primary and most basic rule for using copyrighted images is that you must receive explicit permission from the owner. Giving attribution (citing the work’s author) does not give you the right to use a copyrighted image.

Simple enough, right? But that begs the question, “do I have to ask permission every single time I want to use an image off the internet?” Luckily, the answer is no, and this is where the idea of fair use comes into play. Use of a copyrighted work (including copies) is deemed fair use if used for purposes including teaching, research, and reporting, among other uses.

In addition to this, the government uses four factors to determine whether the use of a certain copyrighted image is “fair” or not.

Factors determining “fair use”

  1. Purpose: how is the image being used? Educational, reviewing, reporting, or scholarly usage is generally permitted. Commercial usage is not.
  2. Nature of the work: is the image factual or creative? Courts will typically be more protective of using creative works.
  3. Amount: how much of the image did you use?
  4. Potential effect on market value: does the use of the image affect the owner’s ability to profit off of their creation?

For many people, they are freely able to use copyrighted images under fair use. So for that school project or report that you have coming up, fair use allows you to include photos and illustrations as needed. And if you have a movie review blog with a relatively small following online, fair use will allow you to post snippets from the movie in your post.

Taking Control of Your Work: Creative Commons Licenses

Now that we’ve covered how to responsibly use copyrighted images, let’s talk about how to exercise copyright control over your own images.

In 2001, a non-profit organization called Creative Commons was formed. Creative Commons aimed to help creators share their works with other creators and allow those other creators to freely change or use these works for their own projects. To do so, Creative Commons established what is known as “Creative Commons licenses,” which essentially outline the terms of using a creator’s original work. These licenses are free of charge to obtain.

There are four main designations that can be added to any Creative Commons license for any particular work. These designations outline the rules that the new user, or “licensee,” must abide by if they choose to use the work. They are:

  1. Attribution (BY): the licensee must credit the original creator.
  2. Share-alike (SA): the licensee must apply the same designations from the original work’s Creative Commons license to the new work’s Creative Commons license.
  3. Non-commercial (NC): the licensee can only use or change the original work for non-commercial purposes.
  4. No derivative works (ND): the licensee can only use the original work exactly as it was created. No changes or remixes are allowed.

Owners can pick and choose any combination of these four designations to apply for each of their original works. Make sure you understand these designations and each of their ramifications before applying them, as CC licenses are non-revocable, meaning licensees may continue using your works according to the license requirements for as long as the license is good for.

Pro-tip: If you are a photographer you can easily find if others are using your photos online. Go to Google image search and use the “search by image” function to upload your photo and Google will show you any pages that have that image on them.

Free Public Domain Images

If you want to avoid all the headaches of fair use and copyright permission, using royalty-free images in the public domain may be the best option for you. If an image is designated as being in the public domain (or CC0), it is free to use in any form or fashion, without attribution requirements or commercial restrictions. Unsplash is one of the best resources where you can find over 1 million free stock images and videos for unlimited use.

All the images used in this post are from the public domain. We adulterated them, adding logos and headlines, to make the images a little more unique to this post, but the photos themselves are available for free download along with many many more.

Final Thoughts

Copyright is a crucial legal tool that protects creators from people who might unfairly profit off of their original works. Hopefully, this article has helped you understand how to use online images fairly and responsibly.

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