The Most Common Misconceptions about Image Copyright

In this piece, we shed light on the most common misconceptions that bring people to use images without buying a license on them.


Images found on the Internet are frequently used for websites, blogs, and magazines without asking the owners for permission or compensating them for the use of their intellectual property. It is often done consciously, but in the majority of cases, ignorance about image rights is the reason for the illegal action. Here are the most widely spread misconceptions about image copyright that many people mistakenly believe to be true.

The following statements are NOT a part of copyright law regulations:

  1. Google provides images for free.

  2. There is always a copyright sign or any other watermark on the photo if the image is copyrighted.

  3. If you find a picture on Facebook/ Instagram, it is always in the public domain.

  4. You don't have to pay for an image if you don't use it for commercial purposes.

  5. If the photo is not professional enough, it is not protected by copyright law.

  6. It is enough to mention a photographer's name/ credits under the photo to use it legally.

  7. If you edit the image and it looks completely different, you can use it freely.

  8. If the image has been online for many years, there is no need to buy a license.

  9. If the image has a Creative Commons license, you can use it freely.

    And last but not least:

  10. If the photo shows yourself, you can use it without any restrictions.

1. Google provides images for free.

It seems to be a popular belief that everything you can find on Google is available for free. Many Internet users are not fully aware of how things work online. But the fact is that Google is purely a search engine, and Google Images is not a free stock photo agency. 

Google does not own any of the pictures shown as a result of your search. Its job is to find images that fit your search query, and other people or companies own the photos and the copyrights. So the pictures in a search result mostly don't belong to the public domain. 

So the rule is: Always assume that online content is copyrighted, even if it doesn't have an explicit copyright notice. It would be best to research whether the content you want to use is protected and how to clear the rights before using it on your website.

 

2. There is always a copyright sign or any other watermark on the photo if it is copyrighted.

A watermark/copyright sign communicates that the picture is copyrightedbut it does not serve as a necessary sign of protection for the photographs. Image ownership rights exist by default. As soon as an amateur or professional photographer presses the shutter button, all the power of the copyright law is now associated with the photo. Therefore, a photographer does not have to specify that the picture is copyright protected on the photo or their website. Unless specified otherwise, consider an image to be copyrighted.

 

3. If you find a picture on Facebook/ Instagram, it is always in the public domain.

Contrary to widespread belief, a photographer does not give up their copyright by uploading a photo on Facebook. Facebook’s Terms of Service state: „You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook. “ 

So, is it allowed to publish a photo posted on Facebook? Yes, but under certain conditions. Another user can share a picture on Facebook only by using the "share" button if the photographer permits it from their privacy setting. It is not legal to save it on your computer and use it anywhere else on Facebook or the Internet. 

 

4. You don't have to pay for an image if you don't use it for commercial purposes.

Many people think they will never get sued for using a photo on a non-commercial website. Whether or not you make money from the image use does not change the legal situation. It is still copyright infringement. The only difference is that statutory damages for non-commercial usage tend to be lower than in case you make a profit from the photo usage.

 

5. If the photo is not professional enough, it is not protected by copyright law.

This very common objection is both legally irrelevant and clumsy, and it additionally opens up a new field of investigation: the insult of the photographer. No creative person likes to be told that the work they stole is worthless or of little value.

From a legal point of view, this objection is quickly invalidated: It does not matter how expensive or original other images are. It is always the specific case and the specific picture that must be judged. 

Take an iPhone picture of a white paper sheet on a white table during a snowstorm. This photo would be as much protected by copyright law as the most expensive Angelina Jolie's portrait, made with $500,000 worth of equipment.

 

6. It is enough to mention a photographer's name/ credits under the photo to use it legally. 

 

Many people believe that mentioning a photographer´s name under the picture on their website gives them the right to use the image. Moreover, many of them often think that in this way, they do a favor to the photographer by giving him more exposure.

 

Copyright law contains the concept of a “monopoly of economic exploitation”. Only the copyright owner can decide how the photo can be used. Doing “advertisement” for the photographer is neither a valid nor legal reason to use any image without first asking the copyright holder, especially since it is legally mandatory in most countries to put a photo credit under a photo, even when you buy the license. 

 

7. If you edit the image and it looks completely different, you can use it freely.

People often claim that when they edit a photograph, it becomes a new, original picture that can be freely used without the photographer’s consent. But it is not right and is only another misconception about copyright. It doesn’t matter how much an image is edited; you always need the copyright holder's consent to use it. Otherwise, it classifies as an infringement.

 

8. If the image has been online for many years, there is no need to buy a license.

A photo does not suddenly fall into the public domain after being available for a dozen years. The photographer mostly keeps his copyright, and, depending on the country, the image will remain copyrighted between 50 to 70 years after the photographer´s death. Only after that will it fall into the public domain.

 

9. If the image has a Creative Commons license, you can use it freely.

A CC license does not mean completely free. The content is subject to the terms of the CC license. Read the license and see what is allowed. There are six different licenses that enable different types of use. Each type clearly states what you can and can´t do with the content. Please adhere to these terms set by the content owner for their online content.

 

It also applies to stock photo agencies: You must follow the terms of use of the license you bought from them. Solely because you pay a monthly fee doesn't give you unlimited rights to use the images.

 

 

10. If the photo shows yourself, you can use it without any restrictions.

 

It seems to be logical, but no. As mentioned above: Legally, the photographer is the only person who owns the copyright on this photo because he took it. His photograph is his artistic interpretation of you. So if you were shot participating in a protest, a sports event, or if you were the subject of the photograph's street photography, you need to ask him first before using the image.

 

Of course, if you hired a photographer to make your business portrait, he likely gave you the license to use it. However, the photographer keeps the copyright.

 

 

What to do if it came to copyright infringement?

Unfortunately, there is no universal practice for every image creator on how to deal with copyright infringements. Of course, you can go a legal way and hire a lawyer to enforce your copyright. However, sending a third party after an infringer is not always the best idea. As you learned from this article, people commit copyright infringements unconsciously in many cases, just because of a lack of knowledge. Otherwise, they would immediately buy a license. In such cases, it would be beneficial for you to contact the infringers directly, establish a positive relationship with them and turn them into customers instead of opponents. If this seems to be right for you, check out  Fair Licensing.

 

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