Image Ethics

Anyone who reads me regularly knows how I feel about the practice of right-clicking and saving images from the internet and then using them to pretty up blog posts. I see it happen all too often and it bugs the daylights out of me. Folks who would never swipe a shirt from the mall seem comfortable to “use” the work of photographers and graphic artists. Some justify this by adding a quick sentence such as, “Image courtesy of Google Images.” Here’s the thing: Google Images doesn’t own the images. The same applies to most of the places bloggers find these images--the sites typically do not own the rights to the photos or other artwork. The folks who created them do, and they may or may not be okay with their work being reproduced all over the web. It’s not like you can take that shirt from the mall and then pin on a little note that says, “Shirt courtesy of JC Penney.”

To comply with copyright law, you must receive permission from the copyright holder before you download any content. The exception to this is “fair use.”

To be clear, fair use is a huge exception. The fuzzy definition of fair use can make it very difficult to determine which side of the law you are on when you grab and post an image that you didn’t personally create or for which you have not secured definitive permission to use. This stuff goes to court specifically because the laws are hazy, at best.

Sometimes it’s easy. Some websites, artists, and agencies offer the use of their images—free for the taking. Many stipulate the conditions under which you can use their work, typically requiring that you link back to them. That seems reasonable enough. Some are fine with users altering the image (changing it to black & white, utilizing just a portion of the image, etc.) while others offer it up only when used exactly as is.

Frequently though, determining whether or not you’ll be a thief if you use an image that you didn’t create isn’t quite that simple. Again, we can thank our buddy fair use for that.

Before we go any further, let’s clear up a common misconception about copyright. Copyright is in force the moment you create something. You put words to paper, snap a photo, or doodle a bunch of crapola using Paint and Voila! You’ve got yourself a copyrighted creation. Just. Like. That.

You don’t need to file any paperwork, pay any fees, or register your work anywhere, although you can (and some say you should). Your work is copyright protected the moment you create it. It belongs to you.

Then, as most of us do, we unleash our creations and send them out into the world. That’s where things can get messy. That’s where fair use might step in and allow Joe Blogger to take your photo and paste it right onto his latest post. He may or may not mention that you snapped that lovely shot of the lake. He may or may not have to. And you might not really care if he uses it. You might even feel a little flattered that of all the gazillion images out there, J.B. chose yours. What a talent you must have!

But what if the photo isn’t of the lake? What if it’s a shot of the front of your house? What if it’s of your five-year-old, blowing out her birthday candles? What if it’s your wedding picture?

What if J.B. takes your wedding picture and posts it to a ranting vent-fest blog he wrote about how marriages are all doomed to fail or cites it as proof of his theory that not all brides are beautiful? Still flattered that he chose your photo?


Section 107 of U.S. copyright law lists the various purposes for which the reproduction of a work may be fair. Examples include teaching, research, news reporting, scholarship, commentary, and criticism. Section 107 also lists four factors which are to be considered in determining whether a particular use is fair:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes: Nonprofit, educational purposes and generally favored over commercial uses. As stated above, teaching, research, news reporting, scholarship, commentary, and criticism are specifically mentioned as examples of fair use. It’s important to note, however, that all four factors must be considered, and not merely this one. Also, courts (as these things do end up in court) have historically leaned toward approving of uses that are “transformative,” rather than full reproductions.
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work: Greater protection is generally given to creative works, so art, music, feature films, and fictional literature are less likely to be deemed available under fair use than nonfiction might be.
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole: Typically, the less you use of another’s work, the more likely you are to receive the benefit of the doubt in terms of fair use. For images, that means that a thumbnail of an original might be okay, while swiping the whole picture is likely not. Bloggers might want to pay special attention to this distinction as most of us who use images incorporate a pretty decent sized image in our blogs.
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work: This one can be tricky. Essentially, it means that if you take something that the owner/creator could have potentially licensed and/or sold, you are not likely operating under the terms of fair use. Considering that selling images and photographs for use on blogs and websites is a commonplace occurrence, my gut says that taking them for free is in opposition to this factor.

Please note: It is only acceptable to use photographs or other artwork (with the obvious exception of your own work or work that you have secured permission to use) when ALL four of the above factors can be properly applied. In my opinion, that makes a large percentage of the images that are out there off-limits, and I’m not alone in recommending caution.

According to The U.S. Copyright Office: The safest course is always to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material. The Copyright Office cannot give this permission.
When it is impracticable to obtain permission, use of copyrighted material should be avoided unless the doctrine of fair use would clearly apply to the situation. The Copyright Office can neither determine if a certain use may be considered fair nor advise on possible copyright violations. If there is any doubt, it is advisable to consult an attorney.

So, bottom line? For me, it comes down to the sentence that I post at the bottom of all of my blogs: You wouldn’t like it if someone stole your words, so please don’t steal the work of photographers and graphic artists to provide images for your blog.


I’m blogging my way from A-Z. Please check out some of the other A-Z’ers.

One blog every day, that’s all you have to do: NaBloPoMo

One more thing: You wouldn’t like it if someone stole your words, so please don’t steal the work of photographers and graphic artists to provide images for your blog.



  1. You drove your point home AND made me laugh with this line: "It’s not like you can take that shirt from the mall and then pin on a little note that says, 'Shirt courtesy of JC Penney.'" That is priceless!

    There are many places that allow the use of images too, like I have seen you use Morguefiles... that's my preference (if I don't use my own) because I donate my images to them all the time. It's really important to credit the people whose images you use, even if they do provide permission.

    You go BETH!

  2. I agree with November and I too look for the freebies, no strings attached.

    Great post. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. I have started using flickr due to these concerns:

    In the search you can pick images that are only licensed for the creative commons and which can be used commercially and which can be modified.

    They even provide code for linking to the image and providing a credit to the artist. It is best, when crediting, to use the artist's name and link to their site.

    Aside from that, there are subscription services, where you can purchase stock photos and other images. If I did any volume of web development, I'd use one of those services.

    thanks, Mike Adams

  4. Acr0nym, for the most part, now supplies most of my photos. However, as I have blogged and looked for images to represent my topic, I've found a number of images that were never appropriately attributed. This pisses me off...especially now that I know a number of photographers who depend on their art for income.

  5. I pretty much use only my own images. And if anyone else wants to use them, please feel free. I would like to have them attributed to me, just because I love the idea that someone else liked my images enough to use them. I have more feelings of ownership for my words, tho. : - )

  6. I usually use my own images - pictures of a sibling for a cute kid/my parent's puppy, but occasionally I will use a picture of a book cover that I'm doing a review for. I don't think that is as bad because I am usually using the picture to link to where you can buy the book. But I definitely understand where you are coming from.

  7. Well, as a retired copyright attorney, I do agree with you. I use images that further the profit of the owner, like my book covers on Quig Land (which in fact come from the library). I think you should never use people in them and I screen my videos for Jimmy Buffett for that specifically if they are from a private person. Many, many of them are from music companies. If they don't want you to use them you can't embed them. I have represented photographers and of course it is incredibly hard for them to register each photograph so that they could later file suit if necessary so I advised them to make sure that their name is visible with the copyright symbol. If a picture is not attributed and on Google images I will use it.

    However you cannot sue for infringement unless you have registered your copyright with the Library of Congress. You are quite correct that you have literal copyright on creation, but you need to clearly mark your creations. Think before you post those pictures on the web, it is still a free for all in many ways.

  8. Yikes, guilty as charged...Did you mention a while back a website that was okay to use their images? Thanks for all the info, Beth.

  9. Very informative and ♥very clear.

  10. I do admit to being guilty as charged, but I have never claimed the photos to be mine and leave the original URL so that the original site is linked. Especially if I'm writing about a recipe, I find one that has photos so that people can see where I got it from. But, your points are, without a doubt, valid.

  11. Excellent points. For the 99% of the time, I have always used photos from photo-sharing sites with full credit. I admit, over this A-Z month I have gotten somewhat sloppy - if the same photo is "up" on Google in 6-10 permutations, I haven't felt that me borrowing one is going to hurt the original photographer. Will tighten up and fly right, thanks for the reminder.

  12. I am a new follower from the A to Z challenge. You have touched on a topic that I believe we will all benefit from. I am a lawyer and I find it difficult to understand the "fair use" exception. You have prompted me to research the area thoroughly. I mostly use shared image sites that I pay for or clip art sites that I have a subscription to, but I admit to using photos that I see pop up over and over. Thanks for the reminder and for pointing us in the direction of the law that covers this particular issue.

  13. Very true, that is why I do my best to mention where I got pictures or text. Sometimes I forget (or don't manage to do that on my IPad) and I feel very guilty when that happens. But I do understand the value of 'rights' and we should do our best to protect it!

  14. But if one is using FREE photo's from a free online site that isn't infringing now is it?
    like copyright free photo's? or royalty free photo's? Hmmmm.....ya got me thinking now.

  15. I see what you are saying. Often times the realm of "Fair use" is abused.

    I use book and game covers all the time. I never ask and often I know the authors and artists personally. But nearly all of these fall under fair use since I am using them for review purposes.

    It's not easy nor is it all cut and dry.

    I am trying to read all the A to Z blogs, but coming back to the ones I really like.
    Looking forward to seeing what you do all month!

    The Other Side
    The Freedom of Nonbelief

  16. @k: I love that you donate images to Morguefile! I get a lot of my images there because they are so accommodating and easy to please as far as their terms. You'll have to let me know if you find one of yours on one of my blog posts!

    @MMM: That's great! There are so many free images available. I look for those, create my own (often pitiful, but at least they're not stolen property), and once in a while, I buy an image when I can't find exactly what I want amongst the free-use freebies.

  17. @MA: Yay! Responsible use of images!!

    @Jane: Exactly! Taking photos is akin to pulling a few bucks right out of someone's wallet. You rock.

    @Angela: Good to know! I'll add your page for places to look when I'm browsing for images. Thank you!

  18. @Krista: Reviewers are highly unlikely to be admonished for the use of pics of the books they're reviewing--especially if the review is a positive one. ;O)

    @Pam: Pirates can do whatever they want, whenever they want.

  19. @Linda: is a good site, but there are lots of others. You can do a search for free images, but be sure to look over each sites terms of usage, as they vary.

    @Jo: Thank 'ya, ma'am.

  20. @SJerZGirl: One question: have you ever considered just taking a quick pic of the foods that you make and using your own images? I'm sure you're not copying the recipes themselves word for word, so if the creations are yours, may as well show the world all the yummy stuff you make. Just a thought.

    @TWG: This A-Z thing does put the pressure on to find stuff quickly!

  21. @Melissa: Thanks for your input! It says a lot about the vagueness of the law when lawyers have trouble determining exactly where the lines are drawn. Fair use has a whole lot of gray area, so cases have a tendency to be decided based on the interpretation of the powers that be, case-by-case. It really would be helpful if this issue was clarified, with specific parameters clearly outlined, especially now that everyone and their dog has a blog.

    @Amy & Paula: Thank you.

  22. Excellent info.

    Hope you’re enjoying the challenge so far.
    --Damyanti, Co-host A to Z Challenge April 2012

    Twitter: @AprilA2Z

  23. @Claudia: I think that writers need to be especially aware, and should strive to use only those images which have been offered (or paid for). Many of us understand all too well what it feels like to have our work used without our permission.

    @Margaret: The best way to be sure is to read the terms of use on the sites where you look for images. Of course, you need to first determine that those sites have the rights to be passing on permission and aren't just housing a bunch of images that they've gathered from who knows where. It can be a bit of a puzzle sometimes, but there are so many free images available if we're just willing to take a few minutes to look.

  24. @Tim: Thanks for popping in! I hope you're having fun A-Zing!

    @Damyanti: Thank you!

  25. Excellent article you've written. For business & pleasure, I use dreamstime for my images (or take my own photos). You are absolutely correct about copyrighting laws.

  26. Very well said. I always try to use my images so hope no one actually uses them. Hope you can visit me and check my blog out.

  27. Excellent article, Beth. I've been using MorgueFile since I read about it on your site, but in retrospect I'm afraid I haven't been vigilant about crediting. I'll remember to do that in the future.

  28. We're so used to wanting/expecting to get everything for free that we're shocked when we find out something as easily available as an image on a website really isn't ours for the plundering. There are a lot of options out there for free images. Those sites might not have everything we need, but that shouldn't give us carte blanche to rip other people off.

    Great post.

  29. Beth-

    I hear ya....BUT....

    I'm a pretty big offender. The reason I can sleep at night-my blog is not a for-profit exercise, so I am not stealing any revenue from the site I've "borrowed" the art from.

    I usually search for image on Google and pull the image from one of the pages that search engine returns, but I am sure I've probably crossed that line.

    Interestingly, if I do borrow someone's words, I give them credit and add a link to the site.


  30. I have really only started using images recently--and still use them infrequently. When I do, they are almost always my own. Should I use something not my own, I would absolutely credit it. Good reminder.

  31. I have mixed feelings about my photography being "borrowed". I LOVE taking pictures and posting them on my blog. I LOVE it when people say they like my work. I even like sharing my stuff...

    But then something happened that weirded me out... I'd really like to hear your take on this...

    Last fall I took some pretty cool photos of a lighting storm from our balcony overlooking downtown. I posted some on Facebook. A friend of mine with family in a different city asked if she could send them to her family to show off the city she was now living in. I said yes, of course and e-mailed her the high-res versions. A few months go by. Same friend posts a link to her mother-in-law (also a friend of mine) giving a presentation at TedEx. In her presentation is one of my storm photos! No permission for this was asked, I was not credited nor has anyone mentioned that they used my photo.

    Now, know the presenter, she is probably clueless about where her photos come from. She asks her family for pix and probably trust that they took them. I see that this probably happened very inoccently. Still... I'm proud that they liked it so much, but a little weirded-out that they never asked or thanked me. I haven't brought it up because I'm worried they'd be embarrassed and feel guilty. But I'm also concerned that she might use it publicly again.

    What are your thoughts?

    {Sorry to go on so long!}

  32. btw, I love your blog! I'm A to Z'ing as well. Highlighting a book of the day among other things... :)

  33. @Jean: Thank you, and thanks for mentioning dreamstime. I'll add it to my list of places to find images!

    @PAPS: Good for you!I'll pop over to visit in a few minutes. :O)

    @Elaine: You're the best! Not all sites even require that you acknowledge them in your post, but I'm so appreciative of finding high-quality, free images that I typically do, even when they don't ask.

    @Kern: Exactly! And thank you. :O)

  34. @Larry: I'm not sure I understand this: " blog is not a for-profit exercise, so I am not stealing any revenue from the site I've "borrowed" the art from."

    Most blogs are not-for-profit. The revenue potential for the images you use doesn't change depending on where you use them. It's about the image owner's right or ability to have sold them, not about whether or not you make any money from their use.

    I appreciate your honesty. Lots of people do exactly what you do and most don't see it as a big deal. I've had my work plagiarized enough times to have genuine empathy for photographers and graphic artists. They produce something for their own use (or to sell) and because technology makes it so easy, what rightfully belongs to them is grabbed up and distributed all over the place. It makes me a little nuts.

  35. @MM: Good for you! :O)

    @Bonnie: Wow, that is an awkward situation. I guess if it were me, I'd probably let it go this time, but in the future, I'd pass along my photos with a comment about how they're for personal use only. Yikes.

  36. Thanks, Beth, for reminding us all. Big issue here and one that will likely only be controlled by governing ourselves individually. As a photographer, I appreciate the research you've placed here. I most enjoy using my own images but I'm guilty of snagging graphics or images that fit my needs. I will, indeed, be more careful of crediting and linking now though.

  37. @paige: Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment. My guess is that most of us have been guilty at one time or another of using an image that we didn't have a right to. I think that when this happens, it's usually because we don't really think about the person who snapped the shot or created the graphic--and there's also a sense that when we see something out there, it's fair game.

  38. Thank you very much for this post.

    99% of the time, I use my own photographs on my blog (the 1% I buy from stock photo agencies). I wasn't always so diligent about marking them until the great Pinterest came along and I found some of my photos pinned all over the place in full resolution. I have since been putting larger and more conspicuous watermarks on my images.

    I am on Pinterest, too, but it does bother me that users (most of them women) can get so giddy about 'pinning' that they forget or stop caring that they might be infringing on someone else's copyright.

    I have also seen blogs where the images used are credited as 'Image courtesy of Pinterest'. Eh?

  39. AMEN! It's unfortunate that people think if it's on the internet it's "fair game" and they have all rights to it.

  40. I try not to do it. It is why a lot of my posts only have text. Frankly, it really is difficult to do the permission thing properly. It may be the best never to use anything that you did not personally take.

  41. HOW TRUE!!! i don't like when i see my photography show up elsewhere..i mean its great they "liked" it and you know i would probably even say "SURE" if they a s k e d..its like a "thank you". We live in such an instant world...

  42. Just the kind of post I needed! Thank you!

    1. Also, I've been using MorgueFile since you mentioned it a while back. Wish it were a little more extensive but that's a small price to pay for being legit!

  43. Excellent post. I'll share so other greenies such as myself can benefit! :)

  44. Great post! I love when people take the time to explain this to other bloggers. As a photographer, I make a living with my images. I do not appreciate people using them without permission or credit, especially on Facebook pages. I use all my own images on my blog and no, I will not watermark them. It detracts from the image and it is not my legal duty to do that.

    I want to clear something up CAN sue for infringement even if your works are not registered with the copyright office. Absolutely you can, it's just that the damages allowed are much lower and may not be worth the legal fees. Also if you are a photographer it is as simple as cramming as many images as possible onto a CD or memory device, thumbnails of them, not hi-res versions, and sending the CD to be registered. It's cheap and WORTH IT!

  45. Thanks for sharing this great information. I either use my own photos or I have a list of sites that I can get photos from as long as I attribute them.

  46. Thanks so much for the tips and for clearing this up. Thankfully most of the images I use come from me or are from Zemanta at Wordpress. We've been on the end of this before as my daughter's sports pictures were lifted from Facebook and put on a website. We had to threaten with attorneys!

  47. I am so thrilled when I find others writing about this, too! Information is power.

    It needs to become a reflex that GIVING credit isn't GETTING permission.


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