How to know if you can use an image online

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Flexible monthly business insurance
02 August 2022
5 minute read

If you own a business, or freelance on behalf of clients, the chances are you’ll need to use an image at some point in your work.

Whether you’re looking for the perfect image for a website, picking a picture that complements an article you’ve written or searching for an eye catching image for your clients social media channels, visual media is an important part of branding and marketing a business.

But not all images you find online are free to use, and knowing which you can and can’t use can be difficult to work out. In this guide we help you understand how to find, use, and credit images created by others as well as the risks associated should you use an image incorrectly.

image use online

Find out if you can use an image

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First things first, image copyright. Anyone who creates an image automatically holds its copyright as soon as that image is created. Even if the creator never registers their work with a copyright office, they still hold the copyright and have exclusive rights to copy or reproduce the image.

Whilst copyright law can differ from country to country, the bottom line is that if you created the image, be it a photograph, a graphic, digital artwork or even a graph you own the rights and in most cases are free to use the image how you like.

There are some considerations, however. For example, if you take a picture of an individual you may need to obtain their written consent to use their likeness.

In most cases, in order to use an image for your business you’ll need to obtain permission from the copyright holder. However, in some instances there are exceptions to copyright where permission may not be required.

Fair dealing

For example, certain exceptions may apply if the use of the work is a ‘fair dealing’. Fair dealing is a legal term that relates to the lawful use of material subject to copyright, without permission. If the image is used for research and private study, criticism or review, or news reporting, it may be considered fair dealing.

If you’re using imagery for marketing or branding purposes it’s unlikely to fall under fair dealing and you’ll need to seek permission.

Images in the public domain

In the UK images subject to copyright enter the public domain 70 years after the death of the artist, generally speaking. If an image is in the public domain, it can be used without seeking permission or without incurring a copyright fee, although you’ll likely be required to credit the original source.

Creative Commons

Some images may be available to use under what is known as a Creative Commons licence, which allows creators to enable copyright permissions to their creative work. Through Creative Commons, the creator can retain copyright whilst allowing others to copy, distribute and make use of their imagery.

A key requirement of using images available under Creative Commons is to ensure attribution to the original creator. Under UK Copyright law, this is also a requirement. Whenever you use Creative Commons works, make sure the creator has been acknowledged along with any relevant copyright and licence information. To attribute effectively, Creative Commons suggest including title, author, source and licence details.

  • Title: the name of the image or artwork, if available.
  • Author: who the copyright holder is.
  • Source: a reference or link to the original.
  • Licence: the details of the copyright licence.

Stock imagery

So long as they are labelled for commercial use, you are able to purchase and use royalty free stock photos in your marketing, including on your website, email marketing, on social media channels.

When can you use images?

If you are planning to use an image in your work, there are three questions you should consider.

1. Can you determine ownership? The first step is to understand ownership, if you created the image you are the owner, however if you’re sourcing an image from online you’ll need to determine the ownership to understand if you can use the image.

2. Could you be infringing upon copyright? If you don’t own the copyright, usage of the image may cause an infringement. If you’ve found the image online, to determine the copyright owner in order to request usage permissions or to purchase usage rights Google provides a useful image ownership tool to help you.

3. Will modifications be made to the original? Even if you’ve obtained permission to use an image, there may be restrictions on how that image can be used, for example if modifications will be made. You may need to obtain additional permission to make modifications.

Use our tool below to guide you through how to determine if you can use an image in your work.

So, can I use this image?

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Depending on who owns the copyright, there are many ways in which permission can be granted, from a receipt of purchase from a stock photography site to written permission signed by the copyright holder. In some cases, oral permission might also be sufficient.

In each case it's important that you have a record that permission has been granted including what the terms of that permission are, be it exclusive rights or otherwise, whether or not you can use the image for commercial purposes and how long the permission will be valid. If you're seeking permission from a copyright holder, you can use this guide.

Using images incorrectly may not seem like a serious issue, however if you happen to infringe upon a copyright either intentionally or by accident, there could be serious consequences for your business or client.

Some of the outcomes of a copyright infringement may include:

  • A retroactive requirement to seek permission to use the image, and a necessity to include a credit to the original source
  • A request or injunction for you to cease use of the image, with a requirement to remove any branding or marketing material that features the image
  • Or in a worst case, you could be subject to legal proceedings resulting in the payment of damages to the copyright holder

Therefore, incorrect use of images could cause significant disruption to your marketing efforts, as well as being a potentially costly and time consuming legal issue.

How insurance can help

Using images or other content without permission could put you in breach of copyright. Media content liability insurance can help in those moments, picking up the bill for any compensation and associated legal costs.

In addition to covering you if you infringe on another company or individual's media assets, the cover will also protect against plagiarism, piracy and misappropriation of imagery and copyright.

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This content has been created for general information purposes and should not be taken as formal advice. Read our full disclaimer.

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