They paint a thousand words, yeah yeah, we know.

Well, I guess it is true. Using images on a website can make all the difference.

From an overall look-and-feel perspective (all part of the user experience, or ‘UX’), imagery can transform a page, one way or the other.

But that’s not really what I want to bang on about.

One thing that sometimes escapes people is the potential risks of using images if you’re not rather careful.

Intellectual Property (Yawn)

When we talk about Intellectual Property (IP), we’re usually referring to copyright, trade marks and patents. And, I know, it’s not the most fascinating of subjects.

But we all know that you can’t just go around nicking other people’s work, right? Right.

Well, wrong, sometimes. And I’m specifically referring to the copyright around images.

You search for something in Google, and one of the types of results it brings back is images. Thousands of them if you wish (and you’re not searching for something especially obscure – but what you do in your own time is your own business).

Now it has been known for website owners (or even, heaven forfend, designers) to find the absolute perfect image online – one that simply sums up their page or post perfectly – that they just can’t do without. And before you know it, that image is proudly on display on their website.

Straight away, you’re on thin ice from an IP perspective.

Being clear on copyright

Copyright exists to protect the rights of people who create original works. These ‘works’ are pretty wide-ranging, covering literary, artistic, musical and dramatic work as well as films, sound recordings and typographical arrangements. To err on the side of caution, anything original that is recorded in some way, shape or form.

And it is an automatic right – it doesn’t need to be registered to take effect. As soon as I publish this blog post, I automatically get copyright protection in relation to my original ‘creation’. Such that it is 😉

And of course, photographers enjoy the same protection in their images. Whether you’re David Bailey photographing the Queen, or taking a selfie on an iPhone.

And frankly, none of us wants our images to be splashed far and wide without our knowledge or permission. That might be for reasons of privacy, or because you make your living out of selling your images.

It’s all to do with permission

Clearly, the creator of any ‘artistic work’ can grant permission for that work (let’s say a photo) to be used. Maybe out of the goodness of their heart, or for a fee. But there will usually be conditions attached to it.

For example, maybe its OK to use an image in printed material, but not on a website. Or perhaps it’s OK to use an image on a personal website, but not a commercial one (this is particularly common). Or maybe it’s OK to use an image provided you correctly attribute the work to the copyright owner.

The key is always knowing where you have sourced an image from, and whether you have the permission to use it in the specific circumstances that you intend.

Some general guidelines

  • Firstly, err on the side of caution and assume that you do NOT have permission to use an image that you have found (especially on the internet). In particular, never simply copy a picture from Google’s image search and upload it to your website without first investigating whether that is permitted. Sometimes that will be permissible, e.g. if the image has been released under a Creative Commons licence, but you still may need to attribute the image in some way.
  • You are obviously free to use your own images however you like, assuming that you have not in some way assigned your copyright to someone else (e.g. under the terms of your employment)
  • You can buy images from Royalty-free stock image libraries (such as shutterstock.com or istockphoto.com) – but even if you’ve paid for the image, make sure that you understand the extent of your licence to use it! For example, it is a common restriction for purchased images that you may not use the image as part of a company logo. It’s all in the small print, I’m afraid.

A cautionary tale

Does anybody ever really get caught for using someone else’s images? Hell yeah.

Some commercial organisations, who clearly make their business out of selling imagery that photographers have poured their blood, sweat and tears into take it very seriously indeed. And they’ve got automated ways of detecting where their images are being used.

Just Google the phrase ‘getty cease and desist letter’ and you’ll get a feel for it.

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