I have written about it before but it is a concept some people struggle with. Photos from the internet are not necessarily “free.” They are free in the sense that you can copy and paste them into whatever you want and go about your day. This is just like any product in the store is free because you can pick it up, put it in your pocket and walk out of the store.
Photos have the same copyright protections that written words do. If someone snaps a photo, they automatically have the exclusive rights to that photo. It doesn’t matter if they file for a copyright. They own that photo. Taking images off the web to reuse is often a violation of the original creator’s rights and may land you in trouble.
I say “often” because there are exceptions. And these exceptions can help you respect creator rights. There are photos that are taken under open licenses. Creative Commons is a nonprofit that promotes creative works that can be shared with anyone. In fact, a special Creative Commons licensing exists to assist in the promotion of free art work, which includes photos. A Creative Commons license will put the image in the public domain making it free to all to use. Wikipedia is one of the largest users of Creative Commons, claiming to have had 1.4 billion works licensed as of May 2018.
So how do you know if an image on the internet is free to use? Well, first of all it will explicitly state that it is under Creative Commons licenses and that it is free to use. I know not all images will have that obviously stated. If you know how to dig into an image’s metadata you may be able to find it.
However, for most people “metadata” is a foreign term. One really neat tool is Google. It has built into its image search a “Usage Rights” filter. This will allow you to search for images based on the licensing. You can find this tool by clicking on “Search Tools” under the search bar on the results page. This can get you a list of photos that you are allowed to reuse.
Another reason using photos you find on the internet could be legal is in certain non-commercial settings. Many images are licensed to be used freely for non-commercial purposes. For example, if you are putting together a flier for the church bake sale, you are probably fine. Personal use, that is for your own private purpose, is another type of non-commercial use. It is basically unrestricted, so go ahead and use those images in your scrapbook.
The final option is to just pay for the work people put into creating images. You have probably realized if you have been doing some searching, the number and quality of photos available for free for any use is quite limited. That is because, for the most part, people do not like giving their work away for free. The good news is that there are plenty of stock photography sites out there if you need the image for a project. These include: istockphoto.com, shutterstock.com and thinkstockphotos.com. Prices for photos can range from a few cents to hundreds of dollars, depending on the image.
Whatever you do, keep in mind that someone put work into creating the image you are taking from the internet. There are a lot of legitimately free images you can find, but just because you can copy and paste an image doesn’t make it yours. Photographers and graphic designers have to make a living and respecting their work is just common decency.
Brian Boyer is the managing partner of Web Pyro (http://?www.webpyro.com) located in Wooster.