What Images Can Be Legally Used for a Blog?


Can I use that great image I found on Google to illustrate my blog post? Probably not, but here are the rules for what images you can use.

First a small primer on copyright law. In the US every photograph is copyright protected at the moment the photographer takes the photo. Copyrights have a very long duration. For works created after January 1, 1978 the copyright lasts for the creator’s life plus 70 years. It’s best to assume that any image you find online is newer than that, unless you can prove otherwise. If you were the photographer, then of course you are free to use your own image in any way you want.

Since all images are assumed to be protected a blogger can only use images that they have permission from the photographer or the photographer’s agent (often a photo clearinghouse) to use. The easiest way to verify permission is when a photographer includes a permissive license with the photograph.

Creative Commons licenses are the most common form of photo licensing used on the internet. When a license says only attribution is necessary then the photographer expects to be credited for their work in your post, but you are otherwise free to use that work. An author can also write to the photographer and ask permission.

The Creative Commons search tool searches sources metadata to look for licenses and only displays photos which meet the search terms.

There are other search tools available such as morgueFile. The key is to look at the license for each photo and read the description carefully.

Common questions and answers:

Q: Can I be sued for using a photo that is copyright protected?
A: Yes. Here is a story of that happening to a well meaning, but copyright infringing blogger.

Q: Can I use photos from a company’s website?
A: That’s up to the company. Read their terms and conditions and ask for permission. The company may not possess the rights to redistribute the photos if the rights are retained by the photographer (for example, stock photos).

Q: Can I use photos I found on a newspaper’s website?
A: No. Those are owned by the newspaper and they charge money for their photos.

Q: Can I use photos I found on Photobucket, Imgur, etc.?
A: No. You don’t know who the owner of those photos is so you can’t validate a license has been granted.

Q: Can I use an infographic I found on a website?
A: No. Infographics are creative works that are owned by the company that commissioned them or the person who made them. Look for sharing options and terms on the source of original publication.

Q: Other blogs and websites use images so why shouldn’t I be able to?
A: Other people commit crimes but that doesn’t allow you to do it. You also don’t know if those other sites has licenses to use the images from photo clearing houses.

Q: What about fair use. I heard that I can use images because by site is small and doesn’t make money.
A: Fair use is open to interpretation but you will almost certainly lose that argument when you are sued. Stanford has a good overview.

The image at the top of the post was taken by the author, is copyright protected and cannot be used without permission.

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