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How Do You Know If You Can Use an Image on Your Blog or Other Forms of Social Media?

I curated a great post on BlogHer this week about how you know whether or not you can use an image on your blog.  It’s a must-read if you ever:

  • Include pictures in your blog posts
  • Used one in your header
  • Use them to create badges on your blog
  • Upload cartoons you didn’t draw to Facebook
  • Right-click and save other people’s images
  • Pin images on Pinterest

Actually, it’s a must-read for everyone.  So go over and read it.  And then come back because we probably need to talk some more.

Let’s start with attribution because it’s black-and-white: if you use an image, you need to attribute it.  Just as you wrote your blog post and receive credit for your blog post, people who create images need to have their work credited.  So unless you’re cool with other people taking your work and passing it off as their own, don’t post images without attribution.  A simple note at the bottom of the post listing the photo credit is fine.  If you have multiple images in the post from different sources, attribute beneath the photo.

Now what images can you use?  This is still fairly black-and-white.  Here are acceptable sources:

  • Any photo you take within reason (discounting images that the subject would object to being published)
  • Any photo you receive permission to use (someone else took it, but they tell you that you can post it)
  • Any photo you purchase the rights to use with attribution from a site such as iStockphoto.
  • Any photo that people have attached a creative commons license to use*

* How do you find photos with a creative commons license?  Go onto Flickr, put in your search terms, use the “advance search” hyperlink to the right of the search bar, scroll down and check the box that says “Only search within Creative Commons-licensed content.”  Additionally, if you have ads on your blog, accept product for review, or make money off your blog in any way, it is best to check off the box that says “Find content to use commercially” to be safe.  If you plan on using the term to create a badge, header, or alter it in any way, check the box marked “Find content to modify, adapt, or build upon.”  Now search again and those are the images you are allowed to use with attribution.

There are sites where photographers can upload their work such as Stock.xchng or Morguefile, and others where people upload photos that would be of use to the public such as Wikimedia Commons and some of these free photo sites are reputable and some are not.  So use with caution.

So what can’t you use?

  • An image you find on Google even if you attribute it
  • An image you get on another site that you right-click, save, and upload to your own — no, you can’t take that picture of dreamy dreamy Ryan Gosling and upload it to your blog or Facebook or Pinterest in most cases unless you have permission from the original owner of the photograph
  • An image you find on Flickr that doesn’t have a creative commons license

And how does fair use apply to photographs or drawings?  Did you read that post I told you to read above?  If you did, you’d know exactly how fair use applies to photographs… cough.  It’s easy to apply fair use to words — I am allowed to pull a small quote from your blog as long as I attribute it to you.  I am never allowed to take your whole blog post or multiple paragraphs of it and reprint it on my blog just because I like it so much, even if I attribute it to you.  You may only use a small portion of the whole.  But it’s impossible to apply that sort of fair use to a photograph — you can’t show a small sliver of the photo — therefore, there are fewer ways you can claim fair use and it’s a very grey area of the law.  For instance, can you use a book cover images when you are doing a book review?  If you are writing a whole post about a photograph, such as the time when Hillary Clinton was photoshopped out of the Situation Room, can you include the two photographs?  These are grey areas, and it’s best to consult someone with legal authority when entering those grey areas.  I’m not a lawyer; I’m just someone who has been taught well (by BlogHer mostly) on how to use images on the Web.

I am this mindful of images because I want people to be this mindful of my words and ideas, especially projects that I have taken a considerable amount of time to formulate and execute.  I believe that 95% of people who misuse images on the Internet do so because they don’t know any better.  But it sort of sucks because if you read this post, now you know.  So use images mindfully, pin images on Pinterest mindfully, and people will hopefully do the same for you.


1 Cristy { 04.26.12 at 1:06 pm }

Wow, I’m definitely a guilty party. For some reason I had it in my head that as long as there was an attribution I was okay. No more!

One question: for any personal photos I take, do I need to note that they are mine?

Thanks for this post Mel!

2 Lollipopgoldstein { 04.26.12 at 1:24 pm }

In the same way that I don’t give myself a writing credit at the bottom, it’s understood that the photos that appear here without credit are my own. So totally kosher if you don’t credit yourself formally.

I really think 95% of people just don’t know. That the Internet is so new that we’re not formally taught how to use it as we were — let’s say — on how to write an essay in school.

3 Corey Feldman { 04.26.12 at 1:46 pm }

I have to admit I am bad at that with Pintrest. But for my blog I only use photo’s I have taken or myself, bought or open sourced

4 Jen { 04.26.12 at 1:50 pm }

Thanks for writing this. As a graphic designer who creates art and has had to buy the rights to images, nothing makes me crazier than someone who attributes an image to Google. I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately in terms of pinterest as well. I think a lot of people just simply have no idea that pinning might not be completely kosher.

5 Lollipopgoldstein { 04.26.12 at 1:54 pm }

Jen, I think people would be shocked if they really read Pinterest’s TOS, understood how much they are liable for what they pin, what they can and cannot pin, and what happens to a pin even if they delete it (now that the new TOS have taken effect).

6 Ann Z { 04.26.12 at 1:59 pm }

Funny, the article you linked to about book jacket pictures mentions Peter Hirtle (who is a contributor to that website), who I just met with today to talk about copyright and libraries. He’s pretty awesome.

I am extremely careful on my own blogs. I have people submitting their own photos to me presumably to be uploaded to my photo gallery, but I always write back and explicitly ask for permission to post their photo. I have also asked others to take pictures down that they’ve taken from my blog, even though I know they’re posting the pictures in a way that they think is harmless and even helpful. But I try to make it extremely clear on my blog that my words are licensed under CC, but photos on my blog are often posted with permission, but are not my copyright, and so cannot be re-posted without permission from the owner. People seem to skip over that, though.

I’ll admit that I’m bad with Pinterest. It seems like the photos used by Pinterest are thumbnails, and they’re transformed in the same way that they would be transformed by image search engines, so a case could be made that it falls under fair use. And I haven’t asked anyone to remove a pin that contains a photo from my blog. But I know that question is far from settled.

7 a { 04.26.12 at 2:14 pm }

I’m pretty sure that everything I have posted is with permission…unless that’s NOT what the “embed” code means…

8 Kate { 04.26.12 at 3:22 pm }

I only use my own photography or pictures a close friend (who is 100x better then me) but I guess I fail on the book cover points. One other question – Amazon encourages including pictures of product when you mention it so I’ve been doing that (amazon associate). I also link the pic to the Amazon page. Is that ok or not ok? I just did the same thing with pampered chef….

9 Lollipopgoldstein { 04.26.12 at 3:26 pm }

If Amazon owns the image and they’re giving you permission (or Pampered Chef), that’s okay. If they don’t own the image but they’re telling you to post it, that’s not okay. That’s the same thing as me putting a picture I don’t own in a badge and then asking you to put the badge on your site. How do you know? Well, sometimes you don’t. But you could always ask Amazon if they own the right to the photo.

10 jjiraffe { 04.26.12 at 5:31 pm }

Awesome, essential reading. Thanks for putting this all together.

11 missohkay { 04.26.12 at 6:30 pm }

Thanks for this post! As a lawyer & amateur copyright nerd, I appreciate you spreading the word. People especially don’t understand fair use – not just because it’s a legal gray area (which you explain very well), but also because they think “well, I’m not making any money off it, so using x,y,z is fair use.” Not so. Luckily, there is plenty of content on the internet w/ CC licenses to be found! Which reminds me, I never added my CC license back to my blog when I switched to WP… off to do it now! Thanks again.

12 Mali { 04.26.12 at 7:33 pm }

Thanks for this – I’m going to read it in detail, though I have generally been very conscious of this and only used my own photos. This proves to be difficult though when I’m updating my travelalphablog, and I find I’m writing about a place where I forgot to take any photos (like my M is for Manila entry). So if this helps me find photos I can legally use, I will be very grateful. (Though of course I’m grateful already).

13 mrsgreengrass { 04.26.12 at 9:26 pm }

I totally understand the rules (and reasons behind them), but what are the consequences for not following the rules?

14 Lollipopgoldstein { 04.26.12 at 9:34 pm }

It’s copyright infringement (http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap5.html). At the very least, you could be looking at legal fees. There are fines (http://www.lib.purdue.edu/uco/CopyrightBasics/penalties.html). A lot of it depends on how seriously the person will defend their copyright. I personally take it very seriously and would bring a lawsuit against someone who is taking my work after sending a cease and desist. Others may not want to go through the hassle.

15 Jennifer { 04.26.12 at 10:14 pm }

Here from ICLW – I am so guilty of using pictures on FB. Ugh. Thanks for the info!

16 marwil { 04.27.12 at 4:53 am }

Very useful information, thanks for sharing. I have thought about the reblogging that appears on WordPress, it’s a tool to use and a link and the credit always goes back to the original author. But as of content, is that really okay then? Any thoughts?

17 Lollipopgoldstein { 04.27.12 at 8:50 am }

I had to look up what reblogging on WordPress was. Because I’m not really sure how it works, I’m not really sure how it’s kosher. Think about it this way: I have a photo on my blog. If I want to remove said photo and take it out of the blogosphere, I can delete it. If other mediums allow for work to disappear once the main source is deleted, it’s better than something like Pinterest, where the pin NEVER DISAPPEARS. Just wanted to shout that to everyone. According to the new TOS, even if you go on Pinterest and delete a pin right now, they still retain the right to use that image. Therefore, even though you can’t see it, it hasn’t disappeared. That’s sort of scary because it takes the control away from the owner. And the only way to remove the pin from Pinterest is for the owner to contest it and state that someone pinned it without permission.

18 marwil { 04.27.12 at 9:21 am }

Okay, thanks for pointing that out. I don’t know if the reblogging disappears or not if the main source does. But still, it’s someone elses work although credit is given.

19 loribeth { 04.27.12 at 10:47 am }

Oooops. :p

20 Pale { 04.27.12 at 3:38 pm }

I finally got to circle back and read this. !!

I have been wondering/worrying about all this for AGES … and it’s part of why I locked down my original blog. This is just another point that I’ve learned from the ‘sphere that has changed the way I blog.

I knew about the creative commons … that there are sites that provide these kinds of images … thanks so much (and thanks to Word Nerd) for this info and for the links and the specific how-to!!

As a commercial artist (who takes photos, creates art, illustrates), I completely understand that it’s theft when you use images without permission. On the other hand, as an art director who blogs and is passionate about the power of words and pictures working together … I also understand the powerful temptation to make your posts more ‘finished’ and enhanced by adding imagery.

The Pinterest — can’t undo your mistake/they profit from your uploading mistakes — thing is really scary. I was already worried about that concept in that … they say you can’t truly delete anything from the web these days, but to have it in your TOS … Wow.

I know I for one have been on the wrong side of this with my original blog. There was one post were a shared a couple of favorite Anne Sexton poems, for example … I suppose I can no longer do this, eh? I understand why, but it makes me sad because I really enjoy it when others share things with me this way — things that I might not otherwise be aware of … Gosh, just last week I added a post to the roundup that had a terrific Shel Silverstein image with poem that I am really glad to be aware of. But I betcha it’s a violation as it was used. ??

There are lots of online poetry sites and you can find most pieces online already … I suppose you have to go hunting for the mice type to figure out if the work is public domain or reprinted by permission ….

What about password protected posts? If the post is open only to a select audience of your choosing … is that more the equivalent of emailing an image? Is that still a violation?

21 Cherish { 04.27.12 at 9:43 pm }

Wow, really good info. I always carefully avoid things that have a copyright, but didn’t know the other stuff. I almost always just post personal pictures or something from my family/friends after I ask if I can use it, but I’ll need to keep that in mind if I want to grab something else!

22 Jody @ Mud Hut Mama { 04.30.12 at 5:08 pm }

Most of this makes perfect sense but I’m still confused about pinterest. What is ok to pin and what is not?

23 Lollipopgoldstein { 05.01.12 at 2:32 pm }

The general rule is don’t pin images you don’t own or clearly have the right to pin (if the person has a “pin it” button on their blog, you can read that as giving permission). In addition, make sure it’s their original photo and they have the right to pin it. Just because they say you can pin it, if they don’t have the right, you could be in violation from the TOS. It’s really confusing.

24 Martina { 10.18.12 at 5:29 pm }

Just wondering – if I scan an editorial from a magazine and post the images on my blog (and attribute them correctly), is it still copyright infringement? Thanks so much!

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