What You Need to Know About Photography Copyright

There’s a lot of temptation in society to just copy what other people are doing, or a lot of people are under the mistaken impression that any image that comes back on Google Images is fair game. This is not the case! In fact many of these images are copyrighted and using them can get you into serious trouble. Even if you think you’re covered under fair use laws, depending on what photograph you’re using there’s actually a good chance that you’re not. Rather than go through the headache and heartache of all the problems that can bring, it’s time to get a firm understanding of copyright laws as they apply to photography and photo usage.

Public Domain Copyright
This is the best copyright for you if you’re looking to use a picture in any form. Once a copyright goes to public domain that means it’s now usable for anyone for any reason. You need to make sure that a picture truly falls under a public domain first, but any picture that truly is public domain has no legal restrictions.

That’s what makes public domain photos ideal. You can use them as is, link them to affiliate offers, photoshop them, whatever you want. Basically there are no restrictions and no limits to what you can do with photos in the public domain. If you can find public domain photos that fit your needs, those are always the best way to go! All photographs found on government websites are considered public domain, as are pictures over 80 years old. Individuals can also upload photos online and declare them public domain. However it’s still important to make sure that any photo you think is public domain is confirmed as such – it’s not something you want to risk.

Creative Commons Copyright
The creative commons copyright is another one that pops up quite often online. This is a particular type of copyright that balances the ability for creators to keep some degree of control and recognition while allowing others to use the photograph. A creative commons photograph is one where generally speaking, the person who took the photo or owns the license to the photo will still own the rights, but they also grant the right for other people to use, copy, and distribute the photo, but only if it’s non-commercially.

The creative commons license basically works by allowing non-commercial use as long as the original artist is given credit for the work. Online this usually not only means a name, but also a link to the main site where the photograph was taken from. When it comes to making a profit, things get a little more complicated. Generally speaking the picture cannot be used directly for profit under a creative commons license. However, if the site makes money from something like advertising or selling services, then as long as the picture isn’t used directly for that purpose you are probably in good shape, however it’s always important to check on the conditions laid out by the actual licensor.

Doing your research is absolutely critical because there are multiple types of creative commons licenses. Creative commons with attribution might be the most common, where the only restriction is giving credit for who did the original work, but it is far from the only one and you want to make sure you’re not infringing on other responsibilities you have as the person who wants to use the copyrighted photo.

For example, just a few of the creative commons licenses out there include:
– CC with attribution
– CC non-commercial with attribution
– CC attribution with no changes
– “Copyleft” Allows changes, tweaks, and use for commercial purposes, but original attribution must remain and the new creation must be licensed under the same form of CC as the used material. Think “open source coding” as an example of this type of attribution.
– CC non-commercial attribution with changes

All of these allow a different array of uses. This is why even if you see the “creative commons” license on a photograph, you need to follow up on that in order to see what specific restrictions (or lack thereof) are actually being mandated. As you can tell, there is a huge variety when it comes to cc licenses, so you never want to assume when you see this mark. It might be a usable picture for your needs, but you may want to keep looking depending on the number of restrictions there.

Fair Use Copyright
Fair use is concept that gets many people in trouble. While “Fair Use” sounds like it gives a wide array of open options for using photographs, it’s not nearly as widespread as you might think. Fair use refers to a very narrow and specific set of circumstances. Generally speaking, fair use only comes into play when a limited and reasonable use of the photo takes place that in no way impedes the owner’s rights or ability to do with their photo what they wish.

Put in simple English, you basically have the burden of showing your actions were reasonable, didn’t profit you, or if they did the actions profited the original licensor even more. The most common example of fair use of photographs on the Internet is affiliates using pictures of the products they’re selling. This is why so many affiliate bloggers who sell things via Amazon will use the photos of that object on Amazon. Since that’s what they’re selling for the photo licensor, that qualifies as fair use of copyrighted material. General reviews of products or services fall under fair use, as does photographs in a breaking news type of situation. There needs to be a “greater good for the public” option in play to make fair use happen.

Fair use has nothing to do with what is “reasonable” or what you may view as being fair. In most cases it’s probably best just to avoid going fair use. Pay for the ability to use it or ask permission. In the case of a lawsuit, a person defending the use of their image as fair use must prove four things:

  •  The purpose of the picture’s use – especially non-profit or educational versus commercial use
  •  The nature of the copyrighted work
  •  The amount or share of the copyrighted work that’s being used compared to the overall copyright (with a photo this is often 100% – which works against the fair use argument)
  •  The effect of your use on the market’s demand for that photograph

Fair use is not determined by having just one or a couple of these marks. The person using the photograph beyond a shadow of a doubt has to prove their case for all four points to be protected otherwise they are completely open to potential lawsuits. Not the type of situation you want to find yourself in just because you used one photograph you liked.

Copyright Protected (virtually any other copyright)
When an image is copyrighted under anything that isn’t creative commons or public domain, then it is copyright protected even if you don’t see the little copyright symbol anywhere on the page. To protect artists and their work, copyright is an “assumed” or natural right that is given to the work (in this case a photograph) the moment it is created.

In these cases you always need to get permission first, you may have to pay a fee, and you absolutely must attribute the work and keep all records for that photograph in case there are any legal questions down the line.

Follow this advice on copyrights and you will know what type of pictures to use safely and to keep you out of potential legal trouble!

Leave a reply