Using Images Legally on Your Blog

Everyone likes to use images to spice up posts, right? Posts without images are boring (except mine, of course! :-)). The question comes up alot, “How do I use images in my blog posts legally?

It’s a very valid question and more and more people are getting in trouble for using images that are copyrighted. Let me be clear, it’s Theft!

While, I’m not a lawyer and my advice should not be construed as real legal advice, it’s becoming more and more critical that bloggers understand the ramifications of copyright infringement. And while I think that copyright law is laden with crappy case law and even crappier legislative law (let’s hear a big boo for DMCA), violation of such laws carry hefty fines and penalties. And while individual infringements probably do not mean problems for the blogger, they can carry penalties of anywhere between $200-$150,000 per infringement in the U.S. (USC 5-504(c)).

It’s a dangerous game to play. If you don’t own the right to an image, you need permission in writing to use it. Often times, the “permission in writing” is a Terms of Use agreement or a license agreement at the site you get the picture from. In the case of individual copyright holders, you may have to send an email and get permission directly.

So where can you get legitimate photos?

Creative Commons provides a means to search for CC-licensed work. Creative Commons licensing mainly constitutes an attribution clause which requires that you cite the author. It’s pretty open. If your site is for-profit, your search should include the checkbox for “Commercial works” which will give a for-profit entity permission to use CC images licensed as such. If you’re someone who likes to modify images, you’ll also want to check the box allowing for “Derivative Works”. The social media community is all over Creative Commons. Share and share alike is sort of a defacto motto. Ironically, the real evangelists of Creative Commons are in the podcasting and video communities where the most legwork is performed to produce their media. Even if you don’t produce Creative Commons media, supporting this movement is a strong way to help legitimize it in the eyes of mainstream folks.

Flickr is a great source of photography and a large part of it falls under Creative Commons or public domain. Search your term, and check out if the image you want to use from your search is actually freely licensed. In most cases, a link to the image page is perfectly valid attribution and is a highly respectable way to utilize these free images.

The U.S. Government is not allowed by law to produce copyrighted photography. All images available from the U.S. Government are in the public domain. This site has a list of lots of government resources but note the disclaimer that the feds themselves may have purchased the right to use a photo in the publication, so check the licensing. Almost all the photos are in the public domain.

stock.xcng may be my favorite source of free stock photography on the net. Most of the images are free to use, however there are a few that have specific requirements by the photographer such as “Ask me first” or “Go ahead and use it, but I’d like to know that you did so I can see it in action”. The last theme I had here at Technosailor came from this repository. The rider on the license was of the “Ask first” variety. I emailed the photographer who lived in Australia and within 12 hours, he had emailed me back thrilled that I wanted to use his image. So it’s really not hard to get permission.

iStockPhoto provides inexpensive hi-res imagery (very good quality stuff) for as little as $1 per shot and at most $20 shot. All images are royalty free so feel free to use them as well.

Deviant Art is another long standing citizen in the world of graphic arts and photography. Not all, but many of the photos available there are also Creative Commons licensed and I’ve found many great images there. Check them out.

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Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

4 thoughts on “Using Images Legally on Your Blog”

  1. Actually, it’s usually NOT theft. There are fair usage laws in action. Check out Eric Goldman’s blog for additional information but very often it’s okay for bloggers to utilize images – sometimes it’s necessary for attribution, sometimes it is not.

    Google is going through a series of these right now. If it was truly ‘theft’, Google Image Search would be shut down.

  2. Actually, fair use is a defense, not a blank check. Secondly, fair use allows for the use of a portion of a work – a portion being relative to what the work is. Usually, music is 20 seconds or something like that. Use of excerpts of articles are a portion, etc. Fair use does not allow for the use of a “body of work” in it’s entirety. If I’m a lawyer (and I’m not), it would seem obvious to me that the use of a copyrighted photograph is the use of a “body of work” as it is used in its entirety, not simply portionally.

  3. Copyright law is a civil law, and violation thereof results in civil penalties. So while a copyright violation is not “theft” in the criminal sense of the word, it is “theft” in the civil sense of the word. You may not go to jail, but there can still be hefty penalties. So yes — you are breaking the law.

    Fair use is a defense, one which you are free to assert — after you’ve been sued. But really, who wants to let it get that far?!

    There is, however, a gray area on what constitutes “commercial use.” Some case law supports a theory that if any profit is derived from the location where the material is used (i.e., on a blog that has ads) that it constitutes commercial use. The majority of decisions, however, seem to support a definition of commercial use as being one where, for example, an image is used directly in an advertisement or logo. Gotta love those gray areas of the law!

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