Image Copyright Policies

Using images in your online work is vital. What better way to draw in an audience than by adding a compelling photo? While you might assume that anyone would be flattered to have their image added to your content, you’d be surprised that this usually isn’t the case. Aside from all the SEO and search engine ranking factors to consider, there’s also the law. Yes. The law. Using someone else’s work without their permission may be tacky, but also it may be illegal.

Since you probably add a lot of images to your work, it’s helpful to be well-informed on what the US Copyright laws have to say. While they may not be updated as often as you would think, they still control how a copyrighted work can and cannot be used. But just as privacy policies often go unread or misunderstood, so do copyright laws. If you’ve ever taken the time to check them out, they’re long and tedious to read through. That’s why most people won’t read through them, and if they do, they probably won’t understand everything anyway.

To help you better understand image copyright policies, we’ve created this helpful Know Your (Copy)Rights Guide. Enjoy!

Who Owns the Photo or Graphic?

If you took the photo or created the graphic and are not under a Work for Hire agreement, then you most likely own the copyright. This means that you can do whatever you want with the work: post it on your website, use it as your cover photo on Facebook or have it made into a t-shirt. There may be rules to follow depending on where you post the photo, but generally speaking, if you make it, you own it.

If you didn’t take the photo or create the graphic, it opens up a whole new ballpark. Can you use the photo? Is linking back to the work acceptable? Or do you have to ask the artist for permission to use it?

We discuss this in the next section.

Plagiarism vs Copyright Infringement

It’s important to know the difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement, as they are not the same thing. Visual plagiarism is difficult to identify, particularly because of the easy access for borrowing images. Visual plagiarism usually isn’t a legal problem as long as the work isn’t borrowed too liberally. Copy infringement, on the other hand, is.

Visual plagiarism can typically be avoided as long as attribution is provided and credit is given. However, attribution does not overwrite copyright infringement. The creator of the work has the right to decide where their work can be posted, how it can be used and so forth. They may not want it to go on your website or in your email newsletter. Using the image or graphic without the artist’s consent is copyright infringement, and it carries stiff penalties. You’ll likely be given a DMCA Takedown.

Bottom line: Don’t use anyone else’s work unless you have their consent. Taking their work and simply giving them attribution isn’t enough – and it can land you in some trouble.

So how do you get consent from the artist? It’s easy. Just ask.

Requesting to Use an Image or Graphic

If you come across a piece of work that you really like, it doesn’t hurt to ask the artist if you can use it. Most people will agree to it. However, artists appreciate being asked and having the ultimate decision as to how and where the photo can be used. Even if the person says no, it’s the worst that can happen, which is a lot better than breaking the law. If the artist doesn’t want you using their work, you can move onto someone else who doesn’t mind granting you an approval. Key takeaway: Ask and you may receive.

Public Domain Images: Do They Need Consent?

Public domain images are available for taking. Either their copyright expired or it never existed, so they are free and able to be used for personal and commercial purposes. Still, it’s a good idea to read the terms of the site and determine if attribution is required.

What people are often surprised to learn is that there are many high-quality images available in the public domain. So go ahead and check it out. You never know what you’ll find and you don’t have to worry about obtaining consent or dealing with plagiarism or copyright infringement.

What about Creative Commons Licenses?

Images in the public domain are not the same as those posted on photo sharing sites. These sites have a collection of photos that allow users to download and use the images under several Creative Commons licenses that require attribution. What this means is that the artists are happy to share their photos, but they still get to decide how they are used. They can also change the rules later on, which means you may have to take down a photo if it no longer meets the rules. The best way to avoid problems with these graphics is to read the license.

Taking Responsibility

It’s very easy to pass the blame onto someone else, but remember that when it comes to your website, you are responsible. If your web designer chose the photo, you can’t pin it on them – you’re ultimately liable. That’s why it’s worth asking where your designer gets their photos from and how they ensure that the images they use don’t violate a copyright. Also, making changes to a graphic doesn’t make it yours. If the designer is taking photos and running it through photo editing software, they’re not creating a new copyright.


Copyright laws can be confusing, but you don’t need to have a background in law to understand the basics. Copyright infringement is very real, and just because there is easy access to all types of graphics and images online doesn’t mean that it’s okay to take them and use them as your own. If you rely on others’ visual work to fill out your website, that’s perfectly fine. Just make sure you follow the rules by asking for consent and giving proper attribution and credit where necessary.