Every creation is copyrighted by default. If in doubt whether or not you can use it, ask the creator. If you cannot identify the copyright owner, better don’t use the material. And if you do use someone else’s work, whether with explicit permission or based on a generic license, be sure to credit your source.
That’s copyright in a nutshell, but of course it’s much more complex than this. If you’re wondering under what circumstances you can use images, how you can find the original creator, and where you can find free to use alternatives, expect some answers below.
What Is A Copyright?
Copyright is a legal right created by the law of a country, that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights to its use and distribution, usually for a limited time, with the intention of enabling the creator to receive compensation for their intellectual effort.
In essence, everything someone creates is automatically copyrighted. The absence of a copyright symbol does not affect the intellectual property. Crediting the original creator doesn’t void a violation of their copyright.
While it doesn’t matter whether or how the work was published, copyright can expire and the creation then moves to the public domain.
Works in the public domain are those whose intellectual property rights have expired, have been forfeited, or are inapplicable. Examples include the works of Shakespeare and Beethoven, most of the early silent films, the formulae of Newtonian physics, and powered flight.
If in doubt, ask for permission to use the work.
How To Find The Original Creator & Copyright Owner
Identifying the original source of a particular image can be a challenge. While searching on the Internet is easy, even for images, so is duplicating. If you suspect that an image you would like to use is an illegal copy, try to search for it and you might identify the real copyright holder.
We have previously shown you how to search for similar or identical images online using the image search engine TinEye. Since TinEye entered the market, Google also introduced and improved its own image search. Open Google Images, click the camera icon to search by image and either paste an image URL or upload an image to search with.
With any luck, the original source of the image will be among the results.
If still in doubt, approach the owners of the websites where you found the image and ask them for their source. This might lead you to the original creator.
How To Ask For Permission
Once you know who created the image, you need to ask for permission to use it. Remember that the copyright holder is in no way obligated to let you use their work. When you approach them, be polite and explain how you would like to use their work. In your request, address the following points:
- Which image would you like to use — include a link.
- Where would you like to use it — include a link if applicable.
- Specify the nature of the use you are seeking, e.g. commercial vs. non-commercial, academic, or educational.
- How would you like to use the image, i.e. as is or with modifications — describe modifications you would like to make or include a sample.
- Ask the copyright owner how they would like to be attributed, in case they give you permission to use their work.
It’s easier to receive permission for non-commercial, educational, and/or academic use.
Fair Use Is A Rare Exception
You may have heard of fair use and how it’s a way to circumvent copyright. If you thought this was a straightforward workaround for using any image you like, I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you.
Taking screenshots for an article like this, for example, generally is tolerated as fair use. One could argue that the purpose is educational, the resulting product is informative (rather than creative), only minor snippets are used, and the original creator’s income tends to be increased as a result.
You see, to be considered “fair use”, you have to meet several criteria, making it a rather complex exception. For more details, please refer to our article on what fair use is.
How To Find Free To Use Images
By using alternative image licenses, creators can change or renounce their copyright and make their creations free to use, under certain conditions, if they so choose. These licenses include Creative Commons (our introduction to Creative Commons) and the GNU Public License. Likewise, material in the Public Domain is free to use.
Rather than figuring out who holds the copyright for a particular image and asking permission to use it, why not just search for images anyone can use. It will save you a lot of headache.
A great place to start is at the heart of free to use content, Creative Commons itself. CC Search emphasizes that it’s not a search engine, but merely an access point for services provided by other independent organizations. They also warn that licenses must be verified by following the link to the source.
With Google, it takes few extra steps to filter images by license. Go to Google Images, enter your search term, on top of the results page click Search tools, and under Usage rights make your pick.
Google unites results from multiple sources, including Wikimedia Commons and Flickr. Since you have to double-check the license either way, you can also go straight to the source.
Wikimedia Commons is an open media file repository of public domain and freely-licensed educational material, which anyone can contribute to and use for free. Files are published under Creative Commons licenses, unless they belong in the public domain.
Flickr remains a great resource for Creative Commons licensed images. Under Flickr’s Advanced Search you can choose to Only search within Creative Commons-licensed content and specify your search further by content to use commercially or content to modify, adapt, or build upon.
Always Give Credit!
If you forget to attribute your source, and even if the way you use the image is perfectly legal, you’re technically plagiarizing someone else’s work. Note that material in the public domain, which is copyright-free, is considered plagiarized if you don’t acknowledge the source. Wikipedia contains more in-depth information on plagiarism.
If you’re wondering what image credits should look like, you can refer to these best practices for attribution. Briefly, your attribution should contain the image title, the name of the author, the source link, and the type of license, including a link.
How Can I Protect My Copyright?
If you’re a photographer, painter, writer, or any other creative, you should protect your own work or make it available to the public. To protect them, you can watermark your images. To eventually sell your photos, you should license them.
The American Society of Media Photographers has a very thorough Licensing Guide for photographers, which also explains how to write a license. If you’re not interested in monetizing your creation, we recommend to license your work under a Creative Commons license of your choice.
Have You Ever Plagiarized Content Or Violated Copyrights?
With copyright laws and regulations being so complicated, I think it’s safe to say most of us have.
What is your biggest learning from this article? Did we miss a resource? Where do you find media files for your creative work? Let’s hear your tips in the comments!
Image Credits: Copyright by Trueffelpix via Shutterstock.com