Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ethical and Legal Image Use

bless my sponge bath

As bloggers, we love to use images in our posts. For one, they make your blog more attractive. For another, they help break up the text of your posts. And lastly, as we all know, no one reads on the internet anyway (haha, I kid. Kind of).

Anywho, you definitely want images in your post. But, just as with words, images are created by people and carry copyright. You wouldn't just copy and paste text into your blog posts, would you? No, that would be plagiarism, especially if you didn't make it clear another person wrote it. The same is true with images.

Before you freak out, keep in mind I've never heard of anyone being sued for posting copyrighted images on their blog (although I have heard of bloggers being *threatened* with a lawsuit, but quite frankly that's ridiculous. Even media companies don't spend the time and money to sue pirate sites; they just send a DMCA notice). Furthermore, there are tons of images you can use on your blog with absolutely no worries.

Before we go any further, there are some terms you should be aware of:

  • Copyright—The person (or company) who possesses the copyright owns the image. Usually it's the creator, but sometimes not. Most images carry copyright, but that doesn't mean you can't use them. That's because of...
  • Fair use—Fair use allows you to use images in certain contexts without permission from, or paying licensing fees to, the copyright holder. It extends to education, research, commentary, criticism (<----blogs!), and news reporting. For example, most book bloggers want to use book covers in their posts, yes? Book covers ARE copyrighted, but you can post them as fair use because you're giving commentary or criticism about the book. If you used the book cover to create the cover for own book, however, you'd be violating copyright. You can also use book illustrations as long as they're necessary for making your point. Things like gifs are fair use because they're less than 6 seconds long. Memes and LOLcats, etc., are murky territory, but that's for the owners of meme sites to worry about. For now, feel free to use them. If you still need help figuring out if an image can be posted under "fair use," this site is helpful:
  • Public domain—Public domain images carry no copyright whatsoever, and you can do whatever you want with them. If an image is on Wikipedia, it's probably either in the public domain or commercially licensed by Creative Commons.
  • Creative Commons—This is a site that allows people on the internet to license their work in different ways. Basically, a CC license tells people what the creator considers fair use. As a blogger, if you haven't registered your blog with a CC license, you should consider doing so. CC licenses can run the gamut from full copyright (you can't use the image without permission, period) to others can do whatever they like with the work, even for commercial purposes, as long as they acknowledge the original author. It's a good idea to familiarize yourself with these license types.
  • Commercial and non-commercial—If you have any sort of ads or affiliate links on your blog, it's commercial. If you don't make any money from your blog whatsoever, it's non-commercial. If your blog's non-commercial, your life just got a hella lot easier, because nearly any image use can be argued as fair use (note that simply because you CAN use any image doesn't mean you should; it's still really ethically icky to download other people's images off the internet and post them to your own site without knowing if they're cool with that or not). If your blog is commercial, you need to be more careful about posting images that are licensed for commercial use or fall under fair use. That's still a lot of images, though.

So! Lots to think about, right? Just remember yes, you can use book covers; and if you need other types of images, it's really easy to find appropriately licensed ones on Flickr Creative Commons Just go to search, type in whatever, then go to advanced search. Scroll down to the bottom where you'll see the CC logo. Select "Only search within Creative Commons-licensed content." If your blog is commercial check "Find content to use commercially." If you want to modify the image in some way—say, to create a button—check "Find content to modify, adapt, or build upon." You can then search through the results and download the image you want, or use the html code Flickr provides that automatically links back to the copyright owner's page.

flickr image search
Search and click on Advanced Search

Search Creative Commons in Flickr
It's easy to search within Creative Commons.
flickr html code
Copy the html code into your blog and done!

What if you find an image you really REALLY want to use, but you're not sure how it's licensed or it carries full copyright? It really doesn't hurt to ask. Most people will gladly let you use their images as long as you acknowledge them as the copyright holder and link back to their site. Even most companies, like museums or professional photographers, will usually let you use their images for free as long as what you're writing is definitely commentary or criticism directly related to the image—i.e., I want to write about your library's collection and would like to use the image of the library on your website. Just search for a media or press contact on the website (museums will usually have someone who specializes in image use) and e-mail them explaining who you are, what images you want to use, why you want to use them, and where they will appear. Also assure them you will acknowledge them as the copyright holder and link back to their site. An example of this is a post I wrote about a bookstore in Brazil named the Livraria da Vila for Book Riot: I had to get permission from both the photographer and architect in order to use those images, but it was a painless process and they were both very happy with the article once it was published.

Basically, just treat other people's images with the same respect as you would other people's written words, and you should be fine.

Questions? Let me know in the comments!

(Note I am not a lawyer. Everything I know about copyright I learned off the internet. Also, copyright laws vary from country to country, so keep in mind if you live outside the US none of this may apply, or you may have even stricter copyright laws. US copyright law is pretty lenient in comparison to the UK's, for example.)


  1. Great post, so much helpful info here. Thanks!

  2. This is a very helpful breakdown of the different levels of legality/ethicality when using images on the Internet. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether something can be considered "public domain" or "fair use."

    I recently included an image of a library in one of my posts, which I'd found on the library's website. I figured it was more or less public domain, since the library is a public space rather than a commercial one, and the image is just a straight front-view of the building -- it wasn't shot from a unique artistic angle, or in a way that emphasizes particular architectural details; it's the kind of shot that could fairly easily be replicated by anyone. Just to be safe, of course, I included a caption stating the source ("Image from the Lake Geneva Library website") and linking to the page where I'd found the image. Was my reasoning correct?

    As for memes, like the "some ecards," I do wonder if it's ok to use them in contexts other than sharing them on Facebook or reblogging on Tumblr -- like as part of a blog header, for instance…I don't want to imply that I myself came up with the image or words. Would I need to ask permission from the individual who created that particular ecard (assuming one can find out who originally made it if there's no artist watermark or signature or anything)?

    P.S. Thanks for including the link to your BookRiot post! That really is a fascinating bookstore -- I especially love the idea of turning a pair of bookshelves into the front doors (too bad you can't read any of the books inside ;) )

    1. Great questions! If your blog is non-commercial you should be fine. If you ever have questions about whether you can use images from a website, there's usually a copyright statement or terms of service at the bottom of the page. For example, ToS state that:

      The Content and other items displayed on the Site are for your personal use only... If you include or post any of the Content on another website, YOU MUST EITHER:

      use the sharing and embedding buttons on the Site for Tumblr, StumbleUpon, Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest; OR
      use the embed code or post the link of the Content ONLY.
      Any other downloading of Content or dragging it to a third party site violates our rights to the Content.

      So in that case sharing via FB or Tumblr would be fine, but downloading the image and using it as a header wouldn't be. In order to post an ecard to the site, you have to agree to the ToS (although most people probably don't read the agreement).

      And thanks! Glad you enjoyed the post. :)

    2. Thanks for the info! Guess I'd better change my Tumblr header, then... :/

    3. Wellllll, you could always make your own card and use that as your header. They wouldn't be able to object to that!

  3. This is fabulous information! Thanks so much for posting Tasha!!

  4. This is a great great post! I was wondering about posting images on my blog from inside the book.

  5. Thank you for this helpful information. I am wondering if I can post an image of a section of a book to my blog. It's about 5 paragraphs long and I just took a picture of the text with my iPhone. Clearly, I'm writing about the book and the author and it would be very obvious that the text in the photos are from the book. What do you think? Thanks!

  6. I am happy to find this post Very useful for me. as it contains lot of information. I Always prefer to read The Quality and glad I found this thing in you


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