A Guide to Online Images Copyright and Fair Use Laws

Content Marketing Marketing Tools & Tips

Everyone has heard the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Pictures are also worth a crap load of money to the person suing you for copyright infringement. Today we’re talking about online images copyright and fair use laws (in the United States). Pay close attention folks; this could save you a lot of Benjamins down the road.


The copyright logo can be found on any copyrighted material, including online images.


All About Online Images Copyright

As content creators, we understand the importance of images. Using images to break up a wordy post can make it appear less daunting, and the right image can drive your message home. At a more juvenile level, images make reading way more fun. The average two-year-old has no idea how to read, but if you give him/her a stack of picture books they are entertained for hours. I’m of the belief that we never grow out of loving pictures – and while it’s tempting to Google the exact image we have in mind (I’m guilty of it!), it’s critical that we don’t get sloppy and neglect copyright laws.

What is Copyright?

We see the little © all over the place, but what does it mean and how did it get there? To get a comprehensive and accurate understanding of copyright, I went to the most official source I could think of – the United States Copyright Office.

Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture (source: US Copyright Office).

Now that we have a pretty explicit description of what copyright is, it’s time to address when copyright protects a piece of work.

Copyright attaches the second a piece of original work is created and fixed. This applies to both published and unpublished works. Copyright protections are in effect the moment you write a blog post, snap a photo, or create a video. The moment you upload a selfie, you’re protected by copyright. Even if you never publish that selfie on Instagram because your face looks so splotchy that a filter can’t fix it – that image is still protected by copyright law.

You may be asking, “What’s the deal with the ©?”. Copyright is an automatic right and registering a piece of work with the US Copyright Office is voluntary. The automatic nature of the law gives you the freedom to place a © on any of your work. However, if you choose to bring a lawsuit for infringement, you will have to register your work.

Exclusive Rights of Copyright

A serious perk of copyright is that it gives the creator of an original work complete control over its use and distribution. The Copyright Act grants five rights to a copyright owner:

  1. The right to reproduce the copyrighted work.
  2. The right to prepare derivative works based upon the work.
  3. The right to distribute copies of the work to the public.
  4. The right to perform the copyrighted work publicly.
  5. The right to display the copyrighted work publicly.

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When can you use someone else’s image?

The rule of thumb is that you must receive authorization from the creator in order to use his/her image (you’d be smart to get this in writing). Does this mean that every single one of the billions of pictures on the internet is either authorized by the creator or in violation of online images copyright? The answer is no – and this is where fair use comes into play.

Columns of a courthouse

Source: Sebastian Pichler via Unsplash

All About Fair Use

Fair use is an exception and limitation to the rights of exclusivity that are granted by copyright to the creator of a piece of work. In the US, fair use allows for limited use of copyrighted material without authorization from the author of the creative work. The purpose of fair use is to provide limited use if it benefits the public.

Don’t get too excited! Fair use isn’t a green light to use any image under the sun – like everything in life, there are rules, and this isn’t one that is meant to be broken or exploited. After reading Section 107 of the Copyright Act, I not only gained an enormous respect for law students, but I also learned the limits of fair use.

The fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright (source: 17 USC Section 107). 

As you can guess, fair use isn’t a black or white sort of thing. If you aren’t a lawyer with a very in-depth understanding of copyright law and online images copyrights, there can be a lot of confusion as to what is considered beneficial to the public. To help clarify things, four factors determine whether the use of an image is considered “fair”:

  1. The purpose of use: educational, nonprofit, scholarly, reporting, reviewing, or research
  2. The nature of use: fact-based or public content (courts are usually more protective of creative works)
  3. The amount and substantiality used: using only a small piece of the image, using only a small thumbnail/low-resolution version of the image
  4. The market effect: you could not have purchased or licensed the copyrighted work

As you can imagine, using a low-resolution image is probably not the ideal situation if your goal is to create a professional-looking piece of content. On the flip side, if you’re doing a movie or book review, it’s nice to know that inserting a picture of the film or book won’t get you in trouble.

These fair trade rules are pretty nitty-gritty. If you’re interested in learning a more about what is considered fair use, check out this article from Columbia University. You can also familiarize yourself with some specific internet cases. Reading about the rulings should give you a better understanding. 

Woman editing images on a computer to comply with copyrights.

Source: Josefa nDiaz via Unsplash

How does this affect content creators/curators?

The answer is pretty simple: As content creators and curators, we have a responsibility to follow these rules for online images copyrights because, at the end of the day, it’s on us if we mess up. I assure you the company you’re guest blogging for will be very unhappy if they receive this in their inbox:


Cease and desist email for infringement of online image copyrights.


Just to be clear, in the case above the demand for the single image misuse was $8,000! Now before you start getting all stressed out by this excerpt of a cease and desist email, I have really good news for you: this email can be easily avoided.

Safe Options For Online Images Copyright

It should be pretty clear by now that fair use laws are pretty complicated. Heck, if you’ve gotten this far in the post, past all the legal jargon, I commend you! While you can choose to do a ton of research, familiarize yourself with the rules, and continue to use Google Image search to source images, I personally think this is a pretty risky choice. It only takes one slip up to get slammed with a very unwelcomed cease and desist email.

Using Google Images to find photos without online image copyrights is risky business and could cost you.

Create Your Own Images

What do I recommend? Elect to either create your own images using graphic design tools like OmniGraffle, Indesign, or Photoshop. If you don’t have an ounce of design skill in your body, try using a tool that aims to make design simple for everyone like Canva, Snappa, or Pablo. If the cost of design software is holding you up, try testing out Vectr, a free graphics software, or Gimp, a free and open-source image editor.

Download Free Stock Photos

If you use a TON of images, or you don’t have the budget to pay for images, you can always download free stock photos. Here is a shortlist of some of my favorite free stock image sites:

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Purchase Stock Photos

The perk of choosing paid over free is that you’ll have a much easier time finding what you’re looking for. Here are a few of my favorite resources:

If you are going to take one thing away from this post, make it this: If even an iota of doubt exists as to whether or not an image is subject to copyright, assume that it is. Either consult an expert in copyright law, or take the safe bet and visit one of the stock photo sites I’ve listed above. I can not express how expensive of a mistake using a copyrighted image is. The good news – it’s a mistake that can easily be averted!

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comment section below. I’ll do my very best to answer them.

This article was originally published on January 16, 2014, and has since been updated. 

Danielle Prager

Danielle is a digital marketing expert. She is always searching for or helping others learn the latest tips and tricks to improving social media, content marketing and other digital areas. When she's not working, she likes to spend her time keeping up to date on pop culture, getting her yoga on, and obsessing over how awesome the 90s were. You can find her on Twitter, @Danielle_Prager , and on Google+.

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