Online Image Copyright Laws Explained – Know Your Rights

Imagery is essential in the online experience, but it’s important to do it right. Do you know your rights when it comes to using images online?

Online Image Copyright Laws

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Content creators must follow certain rules for online image usage, both for their own sake and their customers.


According to SEO experts, blog posts should have at least one relevant image to boost SEO rankings and add aesthetic value. What many forget is that you can’t just copy and paste any image you find online and call it a day. 


There are certain laws to adhere to that keep websites safe from copyright infringement. 


Luckily, there are ways to stay on the right side of the law, and several stock image libraries to make use of. In this article, we’ll outline the rules and provide solutions so that you can keep creating engaging content while respecting Online Image Copyright Laws. 

What is Copyright?


Copyright is an intellectual property law that protects authors and creators, giving them exclusive rights to use and reproduce their work. The law applies to any original work created by the author’s intellectual effort, as opposed to copying or changing an existing work. This United States federal law essentially applies worldwide thanks to several international copyright agreements, making it a very important set of laws for online content creators to understand.


Copyright attaches automatically the moment you create a piece of work, whether it’s published or not. That means that the moment you make a blog post, take a photo, or film a video, copyright applies under your ownership without you needing to do anything. The only exception to this rule is when the creator or designer has arranged that copyright ownership gets transferred to another party.


You can place the copyright symbol (©) on any original work without it being registered. While registering a copyright is voluntary, you will need to do so if you want to pursue an infringement lawsuit against any other party. Keep in mind that the law doesn’t require a copyright notice to be included, so be careful.


When Can You Use Someone Else’s Images?

A common misconception is that the public domain refers to anything on the internet. 


In general, you must gain permission from the creator to use their image. It’s a good idea to get this in writing. You should always try to find the source of an image to find out if they’ll grant you a license, such as a creative commons, or if it’s offered in the public domain. 

In short, public domain doesn’t simply refer to anything on the internet, even though the internet is essentially a public space. “Public domain” is a term used in law which means that copyright or intellectual property laws do not apply to a creative work.  


A popular practice is to give a link back to the website where you found the image. Some people think that by giving credit to the artist, also known as a “hat tip” or “shout-out”, they’re doing them a favor in sharing their work. 


Unfortunately, giving credit to an artist will not protect you from copyright infringement claims. While many photographers won’t mind, others won’t hesitate to charge you a fine or get your site taken down.  

Fair Use


Now you can probably guess that not every single image found online is authorized for use by the creator. But that doesn’t mean they’re violating copyright either. 


Fair use is a conditional exception to the rights of exclusivity held by the creator of a piece of work. In the US, it allows you to use copyrighted material, within limitations, without obtaining authorization from the work’s creator. The intention of fair use is to allow limited use of material if it benefits the public. Here is an excerpt from the Copyright Act that may offer some clarity. 


The fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright (source: 17 USC Section 107). 


There are still rules in place which determine what is fair use or not, but it’s not black and white. It can be confusing trying to figure out what’s considered to be beneficial to the public if you haven’t done an in-depth study into the subject. You can use these four factors to determine whether the use of an image is fair: 


  1. The purpose of use should be educational, scholarly, nonprofit, reviewing, reporting, or research.
  2. The nature of use should be fact-based or public content. Courts are more protective of creative works. 
  3. Amount and substantiality of use: Using only a small piece of an image, or using a low-resolution version.
  4. You can’t have licensed or purchased the work. 


There are also some fair use case rulings that are worth reading to get a better understanding of how it works. 

What Are Some Safe Sources of Images?


While it’s possible to use Google search to find your images and try your best to make sure you’re using them fairly, it’s a rather risky option. It takes one small misjudgment to land yourself with a cease and desist email demanding remuneration for the artist. 

Create Your Own


If you have some design skills, you can try making your own graphics with tools such as Onigiraffe, Indesign, or Photoshop. If you have little experience in that kind of work, try using one of the simpler design tools, like Canva, Snappa, or Pablo. 


Use Free Stock Images


If you use a lot of images in your work but don’t have a big budget, you can opt for free stock photos. This way, you won’t land up settling a photographer’s invoice every time you need a particular image. 

Check out some of these excellent free stock image websites


  • Unsplash
  • Pixabay
  • Flickr


Buy Stock Photos


If you have the budget for it, and you’re looking for very specific images, you might have an easier time finding what you need through these websites.


  • Getty Images
  • iStock
  • Fotofolia
  • Cutcaster


The Takeaway 


If you have any doubt about the fair usage of an image, or who owns the copyright, rather don’t use it. Taking images from an online portfolio or any other similar site can quickly land you in hot water.


With the large variety of options for stock images, you should be able to find what you need, unless you are looking for a very specific image. In that case, do your due diligence and make sure you’re working within the Online Image Copyright Laws.