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Image Copyright Laws to Know

Updated: Jun 11

These days, it's all about content. Having an online presence and producing content for a cyber audience is highly important for any brand. Content can make or break a brand- and so can the images we use.

Under copyright law in the United States, every image, video, and song created by someone is automatically protected. Copyright protection means that no one can use the image in their content without permission from the owner or creator.

designers at the computer screen viewing image

The tricky thing about this law is that an image's legal eligibility for use is open for the user to decide. All of the images, songs, videos, and creative assets are out there on the web, and with the click of a button, they can be used to enhance content. It can be very tempting to use a captivating image when it appears before us: it could be incorporated into an article to catch the eyes of audiences or edited into a video to help tell a story. But be wary of this appealing path, as copyrighted images are the forbidden fruit of content! The consequences of violating copyright are severe and could result in thousands of dollars in fines for each infringement.

Woman covering eyes with hands

My Copyright Scare

In 2010, I received a phone call from my company's attorney, asking me about an image used in our marketing materials. I realized he wasn't just asking about it- he indicated we had no right to use this image. My heart skipped a beat, or twenty. I quickly asked him to send me a copy of the photo he referred to and began looking into the situation. I came to find out that the image was used in a newsletter that we purchased rights for content with a third-party company, and it ended up being a non-issue for us. However, since that experience, I have become extremely cautious when selecting photos for marketing materials.


Understand Image Copyright Laws to Protect Your Business

It's essential to use images in content while still protecting yourself. Before publishing an image in your content, there are a few key steps you can take to decrease the risk of copyright infringement and mitigate any financial and professional losses.

Research and Do the Work

With a minimal amount of research and communication, you may avoid copyright issues. Before using an image, do your due diligence and make sure you can legally use your assets. Do not take shortcuts! Don't try to crop the image, and hope it will work. There is data in images that make it easy to detect online, making it easy to catch violators. Check the corners of the image for a watermark indicating its ownership status. Check the image's metadata for information on ownership and credentials. Sometimes, you can find details about the image creator or copyright owner in a caption, like a website or email address, to contact the owner about using the image under a user agreement. Some artists will ask for credit by listing their name or source somewhere in your publication. Your online source can provide instructions on listing the credit for the various applications, whether for website, social, or print.

Read The Fine Print

Review the fine print. That's right; I'm talking about the Terms and Conditions or the Terms of Use. Nobody likes to read these long, dry documents, but knowing what's within fair use and what's not could be the information that saves you. These resources are often found in the website's footer or linked near the download button.

Become Familiar with Legal Terms

Innocent copyright mistakes happen, but the lack of malicious intent won't excuse you from legal ramifications. A lack of legal awareness could determine your ability to correctly use images in your work. Arm yourself with the knowledge to protect yourself from copyright accidents.

copyright symbol

Copyright: Be aware of the @ symbol and its meaning. Work that displays this symbol is protected. Pro Tip: Treat each image as a @copyrighted image, then explore deeper to see if you have permission to use it.

creative commons symbol

Creative Commons (CC): Creative Commons allows creators to decide which rights they want to retain and which they wish to transfer.

attribution symbol

Attribution: A creative work whose creator allows you to use your creation as long as you give credit back to the creator.

non-commercial symbol

Non-Commercial: Creative work that cannot be used exclusively for business or monetary purposes.

derivative or share-alike or copyleft sympol

Derivative, Share-Alike, or Copyleft: When parts of the original creative work are used in a different creation, that new creation MUST be licensed in the same way the original work was licensed.

no rights reserved symbol

No Rights Reserved (CCO): The artist has chosen to retain no rights to their creative work.

editorial use symbol

Editorial Use: Content ONLY available for editorial purposes, like a blog article or a newsletter, and cannot be used legally in social media posts, packaging, or other applications.

When In Doubt, Bring the Stock Photos Out

The simplest, most straightforward way to avoid copyright issues is not to use copyrighted images at all. Creating an original photo or using a stock photo eliminates any questions or doubts about its eligibility for use. Sure, stock photos cost more than simply downloading an image and uploading it to your blog, but the extra 25 bucks pales compared to a $100,000+ fine for copyright infringement. Purchase content from a reputable organization that sells stock creative assets, such as iStock Photo. Artists license their images to stock photo companies like this to sell their work and make a living. Some artists disperse their work for free on sites like Pixabay.

There are many valuable options for gathering resources to produce content, so please don't get caught up in a copyright debacle. Use images in content the right way and avoid the hassle. Creating quality content that informs and inspires can be tricky enough without maneuvering through the murky waters of copyright law. Imagine Business Solutions is the answer if you need guidance or assistance in content creation. Contact us today to begin your content creation journey- and we'll schedule a planning call to set the project in motion!


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