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Picking The Right Image For Your Blog Post Without Breaking the Law (Or the Bank)

Limelight Lover © 2012 - Steve Lautenschlager

Bloggers routinely use images to enhance their blog posts, but most bloggers, and most users of the web in general, don't understand when they are breaking copyright laws by using images they are not legally allowed to use.

First The Bad News

It's against the law for you to use someone else's image. Anyone who creates a work: written, painted, photographed or any other medium, has an automatic copyright the second they create the work.

If the creator posts the work on the web or elsewhere in public, that still does not negate their copyright.

If there is no copyright information or license statement associated with a work, then it is protected by default and, in theory, you can't use it.

And no, not even if you give credit. You must have permission from the creator or the work must be clearly licensed for you to use it.

But take heart, there are some legal loopholes.

There's an exception to copyright law called "Fair Use." Fair use permits you to copy and use created works if you do so for the purposes of "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research."

Fair Use can lead to some gray areas which end up in court.

Google, for example, has been involved in several court cases for displaying thumbnail images in their image search index. Outcomes have varied, some in favor of the creators, requiring Google to remove the images from their search index, and others in favor of Google, concluding that their display of thumbnail images falls under fair use.

The web is filled with copyright violations. Most people don't even know they're breaking copyright when they use other people's copyrighted content.

If the breach is minimal, most people/companies won't pursue it because it's not worth their time. Also, your use, even if not legal, may be beneficial to the person or company by helping improving their web traffic or helping their sales.

If a company does come after you, however, the penalties can be very real. For a single infraction the fine can be from a few thousand dollars up to $120,000. If you have multiple images that break copyright, then a fine can be applied for each instance. It wouldn't take much to generate a total fine in the millions.

If you are unsure of a particular case, either don't do it or always include a reference and link back to the source. If anyone ever asks you to remove something, just do it.

So What's A Blogger To Do?

I'm sure you would rather avoid the gray area that could end up costing thousands of dollars in fines.

What can you do to make sure you're not violating copyright laws when posting images on your blog?

There are two options for ensuring that your images are safe for use.

  1. Pay for images
  2. Use images that are licensed for free use

Buying Licenses to Use Images

You can purchase the rights to each image you use from one of the many online image providers.

Each site specifies the exact terms of the license you are purchasing. In most cases, you can get an image for a couple dollars to display on your blog.

Usually, these purchased licenses do not require you to include an attribution and they are usually royalty free, meaning you pay only once even though many users may see the image.

Personally, I would never purchase a license that was not royalty free--too much trouble.

The advantage of paying for images, aside from being legal, is that pay sites have a large selection of very high quality images.

On my websites I often use my own images, but I also purchase from Fotolia.com. The prices vary depending on the size of the image and the pricing scheme chosen by the creator. On Fotolia, an image of about 800 pixels in width typically costs around three dollars (as of this writing).

Here are a few stock image sites you can check out:

Images licensed under Creative Commons

Many bloggers use images which are licensed for free use and this is a great option today since there are now millions of images to choose from.

Thanks to sites like flickr.com, many photographers and artists are choosing to license their works under a Creative Commons license allowing for free use with attribution.

What this means is that you can use their images, but you need to make sure to give visible credit to the creator. This is a nice balance that gives you millions of options for your site while giving the artists a little free distribution--the very definition of symbiotic.

Here are a few sites that facilitate the use of Creative Commons images.

The obvious advantage of freely licensed pictures is that they're free, but compared to pay sites, the selection and quality may not be as good. There are still a lot of great images, though, so if budget is a concern, be sure to check out the sites listed above.