Oooh what a picture, oooh what a photograph

It is so easy these days to get the perfect image you need for your website or to go on top of an article like this.  All you have to do is type the topic into Google (or another favourite search engine), click on images and select the one you need right?  No WRONG!

As you are probably aware, creative works, such as photographs are protected by copyright and, as the name suggests, this is the right of the owner to prevent copying of the work without permission.  Copyright protection is free and automatic; the creator does not have to do anything special (like register it) to obtain copyright protection.  They also do not need to put the © symbol on it.  All they need to do is ‘fix it’ (i.e. write it down or save it to a disk) and as long there was some intellectual effort involved in creating the work and it is original, they have created a legally protectable copyright work.

So what happens if you do download a picture that you do not own and use it for your own purposes?  Well this depends on the owner and how much they care.  At one end of the spectrum nothing may happen or the copyright owner may be pleased that you have ‘distributed’ their image more widely to the general public (this is more likely to be the case if you acknowledge the copyright owner and link to the original image).  Another scenario is that the owner writes to you and politely asks you to stop using the image (using a ‘cease and desist letter’) and if you comply no further action is taken.  At the other extreme, the copyright owner can insist that you pay a license fee, the value of which they set, and if you don’t they will prosecute. 

This most extreme consequence does happen surprisingly often so be warned.  This is especially likely if you have improperly licensed an image from one of the stock image libraries such as Shuttertock, iStockphoto or BigStockPhoto.  These websites employ bots which crawl the web looking for one of their images and then examine the metadata stored in the digital file to determine whether it is appropriately licensed.  If it isn’t, letters can be automatically generated and sent out to the potential offenders demanding many thousands of pounds or legal action will be taken.  I have known clients who have had to pay this, for an image which could have been purchased for a few pound.  If you have purchased such images you should immediately make sure a license to use it was purchased by the legal entity who is using it and that it is used in accordance with the license conditions (most licenses limit use to certain activities e.g. web not print).


There are certain exceptions that do allow the use of a copyright protected image without permission of the copyright owner in UK law and a more general fair dealing exception in other countries but these exceptions are pretty limited.  In the UK, you can use an image to report on a current news story, for parody / pastiche, for criticism / review and in some circumstances for private non-commercial use.  The definition of private / non-commercial use if quite narrow though – if you are promoting your website or personal brand then this is unlikely to be considered non-commercial use.  The safest thing to do is to avoid using photos in which you do not own the copyright or do not have a valid license / permission to use.

Finding images which you can use

As alluded to above, there are times when copyright owners are happy to share their images as long as certain conditions are respected (e.g. that the owner is attributed, that the image is not modified or that the image is not used for commercial use).  The image at the top of this article is such as image and is provided under a CCO Public domain license and is free to use for personal and commercial use with no attribution required (as stated on this webpage). So where do you find such images?

The Google Image search can help here.   After searching for an image, you will see a menu appear and if you select Tools and then Usage Rights, the search results will be filtered and only articles that Google believe are available for use are displayed.  Once an image is found that is suitable, it is then important to follow the link and confirm that it has been correctly classified.  Wikipedia for example assumes all images posted on its site are free to reuse which is not always the case so care still needs to be taken.  Once you have confirmed that the image is free to use, with certain conditions, it is important to i) follow the conditions imposed and ii) keep a record of the license / permissions that you found so that you can demonstrate why you thought it was OK to use the image.

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