Back to Blog
Images Copyright

Copyright of Photographs and Images

November 5, 2010

One aspect of online business that is particularly difficult to grapple with is copyright, be it, use of content from other sites, or copyright relating to photographs and images or other issues.  The misinformation that surrounds copyright is therefore unsurprising.

Often newcomers to the internet freely copy and paste from other websites, whether there is a copyright notice on the site or not, but particularly if there is no copyright notice.  They assume they can use any work they like on the internet, or that the lack of a copyright notice means that the work is in the public domain.  When experienced journalists make this mistake as Cooks Source did recently  (with surprising results – see the latest comments on their facebook page here) you know there must be widespread confusion about the law.

So it is interesting that David Cameron has just announced a review of UK copyright laws to bring them up to date with the internet age.

In general the strict letter of copyright law is not always observed or enforced on the internet but you still need to be aware of what works are protected by copyright, what you may or may not do with other people’s copyright works, and how you find out this information on the internet.  Otherwise, the copyright owner may pop up and, at the very least, demand that you stop using their copyright work and take it down.

Creative Commons Licence
Creative Commons or ‘Copyleft’ as it is sometimes referred to, is a form of licensing in which the creator of the piece surrenders some but not all of their rights under copyright law.  There are a few different types of Creative Commons Licence.  The most permissive form allows the person copying the work the same freedoms as the author including the right to use the work, share the work, modify the work and then distribute the modified work. The big catch to this is that if you use a work under this type of licence you cannot receive any financial gain or profit from it and you cannot restrict others from using it.  If you try to do so you will be violating the original licence.

On the internet if you use content from other sites which use this kind of licence then you will have to licence any further work under these same conditions. Choosing content which has this type of licence is good for blogging but would not be well suited to a website where you are running a business.

Paying a fee for a licence gives you permission to use that image, but the copyright of that image does not belong to you and you must comply with the conditions of the licence which the creator sets out. One condition which may be applied to a licence is ‘Attribution’ which means that others can copy, display and distribute the copyrighted work but only if they give credit the way the creator requests.

Another condition which may apply to a licence is ‘Share Alike’, which means the creator allows others to distribute derivative works (that means, works based on the original) only under a licence identical to the that governing the original work.

A ‘Non-Commercial’ condition may apply to a licence, meaning that others can copy, display and distribute the work but only for non-commercial purposes. Lastly, a ‘No Derivative Works’ condition may apply, which means that others can copy, display and distribute the work but may not create derivative works based n it. These  different conditions can be mixed and matched to suit the Licensor’s needs.

Complexity of copyright laws
Copyright laws are unduly complicated which is why licensing terms, such as the above are, in turn,  complicated.  So it is quite common for people not to know whether an image found on Google pictures or elsewhere on the web is protected by copyright, and if so, whether permission to use it would be forthcoming.  It is necessary to have quite a good grasp of copyright law, licensing, as well as Creative Common licences to know what use you may make of images.

Google Images
Google’s advanced image search gives you information about the copyright position of Google images. When searching for an image using this advanced search, the images which will appear are those with a licence, and when clicking through to the image you will usually find information about the type of creative commons licence granted. You select the type of licence you would like to search for, and so your results will be restricted to images marked with CC or your chosen type of licence. You can then use the image provided you comply with the terms.

Assignment and Licence of Copyright Works
If you are commissioning a photo or image then you may not realise you will not own the copyright in it unless you obtain a written assignment from the photographer transferring copyright to you.

Once the copyright has been assigned to you, you have full rights and may use the image however you wish.  Otherwise, make sure you get permission (a licence) in writing to use the photograph in all the ways in which you may want to use it in future.  Sometimes, photographers will charge a royalty for this licence after a period of time, or for certain uses.

A licence is a contractual agreement between the copyright owner and the user, giving permission for the use of the copyrighted work. So, if you search on an image library like iStock, read the licence terms before you buy the image, to make sure it covers your intended use.

The licence you receive from a commissioned photographer may be exclusive or non-exclusive. If the licence is exclusive it means only you may use the work (although the photographer may retain certain rights, such as to display the work in exhibitions).  There may be other conditions attached – such as geographic area.

A non-exclusive licence is more common and enables the copyright owner to grant the same or other rights in the image to others, as well as to continue using the copyright work themselves.

It will be interesting to see how UK copyright laws will be amended to bring them into the internet age.