“Dear Digit, I am not an artist or photographer, but I need attractive images for my communications. Since there are lots of images on the internet, I can usually find what I need. I want to do the right thing, so I usually write “photo by Google.” That’s good enough, right?”
Considering how many images are available on the internet today, we have a wealth of options one right-click away. But, there’s a catch. All images are owned by someone, and it is legally and ethically important to verify you have their permission to use the image prior to using it. In some cases, reproducing and modifying images without the right to do so can actually have serious financial and legal consequences.
So, what’s a communicator to do? Images that you find online through a search are all protected by copyrights, but may be available under a wide range of licenses (an agreement to let someone other than the image creator use the image in specific ways). Copyright and licensing laws and norms can seem fairly complicated, but understanding the basics is essential. Reading the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s explanation is a good place to start.
Now, the good news. The best bet for people who do not have a budget for custom images or a stock image service is to seek out images made available under what is known as a free license or an open content license. Recognized names for these licenses include Creative Commons and Copy Left. The overall idea is to make images more readily available to others via the internet, by clearly indicating what kind of copying and reuse the creator authorizes.
3 tips for using images with integrity:
- Include “creative commons” or “copy left” in your search phrase when looking for images online. This can be done when using standard search engines such as Google, Mozilla Firefox, etc., as well as when searching photo websites such as Flickr. Most of these search engines also have an advanced search option (in Google, click “search tools”) where you can specify that you are looking for open content images.
- Search for “free images.” Such searches display results for articles and blog posts in which people describe alternative sites where they find free images. Getty Images, a major stock photo source, now offers 35 million photos for free.
- Search for images that are in the public domain, meaning their copyright has expired. The Library of Congress, for example, offers a vast archive of old photos on its Flickr site.
Just because an image is visible on the internet does not mean it is free for the taking. Respecting image creators’ rights is not hard – make sure the images you use are open content or take the time to contact the artist or photographer to ask permission to use their image.
Want to know more?
Click here to view a plain-text plain-language primer on using images. The primer covers copyrights, figuring out who to contact if you want to use an image you found online, and lots more.
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Dear Digit was a “question-and-answer” column that provided resources, ideas and tips to address digital communications questions from an arts perspective. I wrote this column for State of the Arts, a bimonthly newspaper published by the Montana Arts Council.
Although the column emphasizes artsy digital communications, the topics we address are widely relevant, with application for communication in science, education, sustainability and many other sectors.