Image usage rights, the basics
Using images for publication, advertising, or on a web page can be a very slippery slope. Failing to use an image properly can be a costly legal misstep. It’s a confusing issue, image rights and usage has been through the court system many times with judges ruling incorrectly because even they do not always understand the law. And the laws themselves are constantly changing.
One area of image usage that confuses many people is “Editorial.” If you’re in a public area and photograph a person, you can publish that image as long as you represent the image as a person doing whatever he is doing at that point in time. Perhaps you photograph a farmer driving a tractor while plowing his field. If you publish or use the image as an example of a farmer plowing, then it’s a statement of fact. If you use the image and say the farmer prefers to use John Deere tractors, then you’ve crossed the line. The farmer has not given you permission to use his likeness to promote a product or a point of view.
Therefore, it’s always smart to obtain an image where you have a model release or use a reputable image source where images are screened, and the model release requirements have been taken care of.
If you purchase an image, that doesn’t mean you have an unlimited license in how you use the image. The source where you purchased the image may have various levels of licensing. How much you spend can determine the limits you have for using the image. Unless you purchase full, exclusive rights to an image, you will be limited in the extent of how you can use the image. Verify with the image seller as to how you want to use the image so you can purchase the proper license.
There is a common misconception that images on the internet are free to use if you identify the source of the image. Someone may write a blog, find an image to use, and they’ll give a credit to whoever owns the image. If you do this, you’re stealing the image. It’s theft. Period. If you get caught,usually you’ll be requested to remove the image from your web page, but steal the wrong image from the wrong source and you can find yourself paying a stiff penalty and worse, in court being sued.
Many internet sites offer free images. In addition to that, images can be had from the public domain. Even with these images you will need to be careful in how you use them. “Free” images can come with restrictions so do your homework if you look for sources of free images.
Images in the public domain have virtually no restrictions associated with them. NASA and the United States Library of Congress are sources of images in the public domain. But even here, you need to be careful in how you use the images, and you need to make sure the image is actually in the public domain. The Library of Congress may be a source of public domain images or images in which the copyright has expired, but not all the images in their collection are free to use.
Public domain images with people in them does not necessarily mean they can be freely used. Even people who are deceased, the images may still require a model release. So even with images in the public domain, there may be restrictions on how you use them.
If you’re working on a project that is going to be published, then your best option is to obtain the images from a reputable source such as a stock photo agency or directly from an individual photographer. You may be on a budget but purchasing the proper usage license will protect you from expensive legal problems down the road. And it works both ways. If you’re producing a published work, even if it’s on the internet, and you hope to generate a profit from your work, then why would you be looking to steal the images? Wouldn’t you be upset if someone stole your work and copied it for their own use?
There is a reasonable expectation for photographers to be paid for their work. Models are paid to allow their likeness to be used to promote a product or opinion. Agencies collect images to sell and their expectation is to make a profit by being a liaison between photographers and buyers. In the end, you’re also selling something which is why you’re looking for images.
The bottom line is this: If you try to cut corners, fail to do your homework, or just do not understand copyrights, usage rights, and the different levels of image licensing, then you may be headed forlegal problems or having the plug pulled on your project. But it’s really very simple. All you have to do is verify with the source where you are obtaining the image as to how you can use it.
Kevin Thomas is a professional photographer and writer who contributes both articles and photos regularly to Dreamstime.com.