Here's why you can't just 'grab' an image from the Internet

Posted by Jennifer Forrest on April 19, 2018

Understanding the fundamentals of photo licensing

There it is. The perfect image for your ad is staring back at you from your Google image-search results. Now you can just save it to your desktop, insert it into your design (or send it to your designer) and send it off to the printer, right?

NO! You could be breaking the law! 


The basics of copyright law

It is pretty safe to assume that most images that you find online are copyrighted. Copyright, as defined by Merriam-Webster is “the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell or distribute the matter and form of something (such as literary, musical or artistic work).”

Put simply, the creator owns the right to use the image. No one else can use it without permission.

How to find an image that is safe to use

Follow these tips so that the next time you search for the perfect image, you do it the right way!

  1. Use stock photography.
  2. Use Creative Commons or public-domain images.
  3. Use images that are shot specifically for your organization.

Let’s explore these options more fully.

1. Use stock photography.

Stock photos are “off-the-rack” images that are available to purchase for use in advertising and promotional materials. However, just like buying a dress “off-the-rack”, one drawback to using stock images is that you might be using the same stock photo as another business has already or will down the road. (This is especially troublesome if your competitor happens to choose the same image.) You would have no way of knowing it unless you see it for yourself.

If you find yourself in need of a stock photo, there are typically two types of licensing options — royalty-free and rights-managed.

Royalty-free images give you basic-use rights. Choose the photo size you want, pay for it, and you may use the image over and over again on things like ads, promotional items, websites, etc. You may not use the image on something that you are going to, in turn, sell for a profit (defined as personal or commercial gain). For example, you can’t put an image on a poster and then sell the poster for a profit. 

Rights-managed images come with stricter usage rules. For instance, the fee to purchase the image is typically based on how many times you will use it, how many people might see the image, what size the image will be and potentially other factors.

Commercial-use licenses are required to use stock images for business and are available for purchase online through a variety of websites, like Adobe Stock (available through the Adobe Creative Suite) or iStock Photo. Through stock photo websites, you may purchase an individual photo or a subscription, which may be beneficial if you have an ongoing need for images.

Some stock-image libraries give you the option of purchasing either a royalty-free or rights-managed version of the same image. The latter will more expensive, but it’s important that you choose the right type for your use in order to avoid potential legal trouble later.

2. Use “Creative Commons” and public domain images.

If finding photos through Google Images is your comfort zone, and you are willing to adhere to strict usage and permission outlines of its free-to-use images, you can filter your search results using an Advanced Search filter called “usage rights.”

To find this option, choose Images on (top-right corner), type in the image you want to search, then choose Tools, then Usage Rights. You might* find the following types of licenses: 

[* We say "might," because, depending on how you get to the Usage Rights filter, it could say something else...strange as that may be. It doesn't appear to be consistent throughout Google.]
  • Labeled for reuse: This license will allow you to copy and/or modify the image in ways specified in the license.

  • Labeled for commercial reuse: This license will allow you to copy the image for commercial purposes, in ways specified in the license.

  • Labeled for reuse with modification: This license will allow you to copy and modify the image in ways specified in the license.
  • Labeled for commercial reuse with modification: This license will allow you to copy the image for commercial purposes and modify it in ways specified by the license. 

The results that remain after applying this filter should be safe to use, share or change. These images are ones that are considered covered under Creative Commons or public domain.

However, because each image comes from a different source, it is important that you review the terms of use in the license as posted for each image. (Check the website from where it came for a Terms of Use document.) Even if the image is safe to use, the license might require that you give credit to the image creator, for example.


3. Use images that are shot specifically for your organization. 

Avoid altogether the legal questions that come with using stock images by using images that directly represent the mission of your company, foundation or event. These can be images that you take or images that you hire a photographer to take. You will develop a library of images that will include faces of the people you actually serve and will be completely unique to you and your organization. Better yet, you will never have to worry about whether or not you have the legal rights to use them. 

Just be sure to discuss your usage rights with your photographer so you are certain you have unrestricted rights to use them. (This is one reason hiring an event photographer/photojournalist, rather than a portrait photographer, is a better option for most organizations.)

CorComm Creative employs several photojournalists who can confidently provide high-quality event-photography services that capture the heart of the moment for our clients. Contact us if you’d like to know more.

In short…

When it comes to using images, safely assume that all images you find online are subject to copyright — and that you don’t have the right to use them without permission. Be sure that you purchase the appropriate rights to the image, or, better yet, invest in your own images that aren’t subject to the headache of copyright and provide a more intimate picture of your values.


Topics: design, graphic design, photojournalism, photography, events

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