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How to Legally Use Copyrighted Images Online

Avoid copyright fees by following the steps detailed in this video.

Are you a bit unsure of how copyright law works? Worried about how to legally use copyrighted images online without being slapped with massive fines, lawsuits, and cease and desist notices? We understand, and we’re here to help.

Learning the appropriate use of copyrighted images online is important when creating content for your website, blog, and social media. Watch the video below for step-by-step instructions on whether you can use an image or not.

6:59 Beginner
Video Transcript

Hello world! Mike Ploger from Visme, back with you today as we tackle a topic that is less about how to design your own great image, and more about what to do when borrowing somebody else’s. 

You see, the internet is the world’s largest conglomerate of images. Odds are, that you likely googled an image just in the past 24 hours. And while millions of results pop up in under a second, they’re not all available for just anyone to use. 

Copyright is very, very real. And not just in music or in publications. The misuse of a copyrighted image can lead to lawsuits, cease and decease notices, fines, you name it. 

And while a download is just a click away, if the proper precautions aren’t taken, you could be the one suffering the consequences. 

However, you’re off to a good start because you’re here with me, aware of the threat and ready to learn. Over the next few minutes, I’ll take you through a visual flowchart to ensure you’re not the one hit with any unexpected notices. Let’s get started with how to legally use copyrighted images.

Step 1

Step one, is the image yours? Did you take the photo, or maybe design the image yourself? Let’s start off easy and say, yes. 

Moving down the line, the next question is, how about the idea for the image? Was that yours? If yes again, then I have some great news. It’s your camera, your photo, your idea, therefore it’s your copyright. Originality pays off here, and you are free to go. 

But maybe it wasn’t your idea. If you mimicked a design that you saw from a third party, it could cause you and I would recommend against using that image. 

Or maybe you’re simply unsure of it’s originality because of the millions and millions of photos out there in the world. Do your best to research other similar images. After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry. 

Step 2

Okay, back to the top. If the photo wasn’t taken or designed by you, you’ve got to find out if it falls under what is called the fair use doctrine. 

What is this exactly? Well, to put it simply, it’s a doctrine in the United States government that allows for limited use of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holder. 

Courts have cited examples of fair use in commentaries, search engines, parody, teaching news, reporting research and more. So if you work falls under one of these categories, you can head straight to the fair use checklist. 

Here, you can double check if the work could be considered fair. And if it’s not, well then, there’s more work to be done. 

Step 3

If you’re not using the image for one of the reasons that I just mentioned, and it is not possible to obtain permission (maybe because the creator of the image passed away and nobody else owns those rights), then I actually have good news for you. You can use that image. 

However, if you are unsure if it falls under the public domain or if it’s under a creative commons agreement, it’s best to avoid using it. 

You don’t want a quick decision to end up causing you time and money down the line. So if you can obtain permission, then our journey continues. 

Step 4

The next question that you want to answer is, will you profit from publishing the image? If not, then see you later. You’re off to that fair use checklist that I mentioned before. 

But if you are going to profit from using the image, it’s okay. You can still potentially use it, but there are more steps to take. 

Step 5

The next question you want answered is, is it a part of the public domain? Or is it a part of what is called a creative commons agreement? 

A creative commons license is one of several public copyright licenses that enables the free distribution of an otherwise copyrighted work. There are six types of creative commons licenses, all slightly different from one another. 

Sometimes the image can be modified. Sometimes the image can only be used commercially. They all bear very slight differences, which is why I encourage you to check out our blog post

You want to get this right, and no matter what, attribution will be required. 

But anyways, if it’s in the public domain, then that means the rights are released and publication rights have been granted. If it has a CC agreement, you just want to specify which one to understand what conditions may apply. 

And if the image is not protected by a CC agreement or it’s not in the public domain, then the wheels on this bus keep turning. 

Step 6

Alright. It’s time for our final question. Did you buy the image? Or were you granted permission to use it? If yes, then I have some great news. You are free to use that image however you may like. Just beware of the fine print that you reach in your agreement. 

Now, if you didn’t buy the image, you will not going to like what I have to say. You didn’t buy the rights, you didn’t obtain permission, and it’s not in the public domain, you want to move on like you never saw this image in the first place. 

You want to forget about it completely because you should not use it under any circumstances. Don’t hate the messenger here. I promise, I’m just trying to help. 

Step 7

Now that we have finished the flowchart, I want to remind you to check out that fair use checklist that I’ve mentioned over and over again. Here you want to ask yourself about the purpose and the character of the use of that image. 

The nature of the copyrighted work, the amount of work that you’re going to use in relation to the fully copyrighted work and also the impact that your use bears on the copyright owner. 

And if you’re still unsure, you want to obtain permission. Seriously, I cannot say it enough because once you have it, you are free to use that image however you may like. 

Step 8

Now before you go, I promise I don’t want to scare you, but I do think it’s very important to touch on the possible penalties from misusing an image. 

I’m talking those lawsuits, legal fees and even criminal charges, and it could happen to you if you misuse even that portion of a protected image. Whether it’s intentional or not, it’s still a crime. Which is why it’s vital to understand licensing usage rules. 

Even if a web designer is hired by a company and then steals content, that entire company is guilty. Not just the employee. 

As Ben Franklin once said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 

And if you’re still stuck without an image to use, we’re here to help. Visme has an array of tools to help you create your own original image. 

And since you’re the creator, you save yourself the time and effort and worry of seeking permission and the potential harm of copyright infringement. 

That’s gonna do it for today. If you have any questions, please check out Visme’s blog post where all of this is explained in deep detail. 

And if you liked our video, make sure you subscribe to our channel for constantly updated content. For now, from Visme, I’m Mike Ploger helping you Make Information Beautiful.