Many people — perhaps most people online today — don’t know how copyright laws work.
I know no one who deliberately breaks copyright laws.
But yes… some people believe that anything online is okay to borrow, at least for personal or one-time use.
After all, everyone else is doing that, so it must be legal… right?
Umm, no. Really. No.
I’M NOT A LAWYER
I’m not an attorney. My interpretations of the law are my own opinions, not legal advice.
Also, even judges don’t seem to agree on copyright law. How harshly you’re treated, if caught, can vary from one courtroom to the next.
WHY I CARE
I’m an artist. Since the mid-1990s, when I created my first website — gosh, was that really over 20 years ago? — my own images have been stolen.
The tragedy is, I usually give permission when someone asks, first. I was thrilled when one of my original photos was used for a record album cover. But, the band asked permission.
I go directly to the webmaster when I find someone using one of my illustrations illegally. Most people quickly (and apologetically) remove the image from their websites.
However, a few balk. They insist they bought the image from someone else, as part of a package, so they think the image is in the public domain now.
Or they found the image at Flickr. Or something.
That’s when I contact the person’s website hosting service. Usually, the hosting service shuts down every website that person has. They’re banned.
Nobody’s happy, and it didn’t have to conclude that way.
I’ve written several popular articles about copyright, the “three stroke” myth, and how copyright law affects artists. Some of that information may apply to you. My original article is at http://aisling.net/copyright-and-the-three-stroke-rule/ , along with several other copyright-related articles.
I also teach artists, including photographers, how to protect their images so they can prove they’re the original creators of the respective works.
It’s a simple technique: I remove about 1/2 inch on at least two sides of the original image, before I post it online. When the hosting service asks me to prove it’s my original graphic, I can show them the larger version that has never appeared online. So far, that’s always worked.
Others use techniques such as digital watermarking: http://www.digitalwatermarkingalliance.org/default.asp
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Maybe you shrug off copyright laws. If you don’t know anyone who’s been caught “borrowing” images, and you haven’t felt the anguish of seeing your own work stolen, maybe it’s no big deal.
However, if you’re breaking the law, it’s only a matter of time until you’re caught.
Today, software can identify images being used illegally online. Art museums use this technology to protect their images, online.
Just like Google Image Search, the specialized software recognizes distinctive elements in original graphics and scours the Internet looking for any matches.
Once you’re caught by someone who has deep pockets or an attorney with whiplash mentality… heaven help you.
You’re playing a dangerous game if you’re using photos or artwork without permission.
USE LEGAL IMAGES INSTEAD
There is no reason to use illegal images in any product, including website design.
There are many great, public domain images online. Pre-1923 images are generally (but not always) safe to use. You can find them online; Wikipedia often features gorgeous public domain images by famous artists such as John William Waterhouse. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_William_Waterhouse
Many (but not all) works on the United States’ government website are in the public domain. https://search.usa.gov/search/images
Some modern-day graphic artists & photographers have released some or all of their rights. Some websites include modern, public domain photos, such as http://www.4freephotos.com/
You can also find great, legal images — with various licenses to use them — via Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/image/
And, here’s a mother lode of free image resources (or kinda-sorta free, so read the fine print): Almost 100 Free and Freemium Stock Image Websites.
Those are just some of many great resources for free, completely legal, royalty-free images. (Remember: The images are still copyrighted. You’re simply given permission to use the images without paying a fee.)
Stock.xchng was one of my favorites. No matter what the name of the site is now, if the option is offered: be sure to search with “Restricted OK” set to “NO.” http://www.sxc.hu/
Morgue File (not what it sounds like), also called MFile, is another great resource. Like Stock.xchng, be sure to check the licensing terms for each image. http://www.morguefile.com/
Most free, royalty-free websites also offer higher-quality images for a fee. The fee can be as low as $1 with unlimited use rights, and that often depends on the size of the image you want (for online or print use) and whether you’ll be reproducing it on tee-shirts, coffee mugs, etc.
Or, if you found an image — like one of mine — through an image scraper or photo-sharing site, it’s easy to double-check the owner (and the rights to that image).
Browser plugins like Search by Image for Google make it right-click easy.
Then, ask the owner for permission to use the image in your project. Many of us are happy to say yes.
The best idea of all? Take your own photos. Practice makes perfect (or at least good enough), you don’t need to get a photography degree… though you could. And, once you’re comfortable with your camera, consider adding your photos to sites like iStockPhoto.com and earn money from them.
Don’t feel bad if you’ve been using images without permission. 99% of the people I teach or consult for have no idea they’ve been doing anything wrong. This includes respected artists including photographers and illustrators.
What’s important is to use legal images as much as you can, starting right away. The Internet is always changing, and copyright law is becoming a far greater issue across the online community.
Besides, there is no reason to copy others’ graphics without permission. There are many wonderful, free resources for great images. Use them instead.
Want to reprint this? You can. It’s free. This work by Aisling D’Art is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.