How to Use Visual Content the Right Way (Without the Threat of Copyright Issues)

As my article entitled “Why Visual Content Will Rule Digital Marketing in 2014” seemed to get quite a lot of interest, I thought it would be a good idea to follow it up with an article on just what you can use and where. Because the internet seems so free and anonymous, and media is just a right-click away from being yours, it’s very easy to think that everything you see is available to use.


Image by: nigeej (deviantart), used under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license

Safety First

Of course, the safest technique when using visual content is to create and use your own images. It can also be a fantastic link-bait and SEO strategy, whereby you clearly declare your image policy and let people use them in return for an accreditation link.

Sadly, we’re not all photographers or Photoshop aficionados. However, that doesn’t mean our work has to be image-sparse. The internet, however, is a minefield, and copyright policies are ignored all too often.

ignorantia juris non excusat” – ignorance of the law excuses no one.

There is a moral to this entire article, and if you go no further than this, then I’m happy.

If you are using an image and you do not know the rights covering it, or you are assuming or hoping you’re okay to use it, then you are running a very real risk.

And, no matter how much it pains us bloggers, it’s only right. If someone has the artistic ability; puts in the time and the effort to producing high-quality material, the material should quite rightly be protected.

Now, I could delve into the intricacies of copyright and produce an article that identifies everything you need to be aware of. But it’s already been done here. Even this fantastic article, though, only tells what should happen, and doesn’t lay down what actually happens in the real world. Although the laws are written in black and white, copyright cases can be very blurry; open to subjective opinions of artists, lawyers, users and judges, and it’s downright impossible to set every last detail in stone.

But, to bloggers everywhere, this is the bottom line:

Any individual or group of individuals who designs and/or creates any kind of original work automatically has inherent copyrights to them as soon as they’re created, whether completed or not, published or unpublished, or even if they haven’t been registered with the Copyright Office. You have to assume that everything you come across online is protected.

Because this is what happens in the real world:

Content Factory vs. Photographer
Content Factory published a blog post on a client’s website – three months later they were sued for $8000. Even though it was technically the client that published it and was liable, Content Factory did the right thing and took responsibility, eventually settling out of court.

Temple Island Collection Ltd vs. New English Teas
Even the duplication of the concept of a photograph can be judged to be copyright infringement.

David Slater vs. Monkeys in Sulawesi/The Public Domain
Despite owning the camera and claiming to have “set up” the situation, arguments still ensued over who owned the rights to this super-cute selfie.

The Color Run vs. Maxwell Jackson
A company tries to sue the photographer over usage of his own images. These things just don’t appear in any rule books or copyright documents.

The Issue of Fair Use and Fair Dealing

Purportedly, the main goals of Fair Use and Fair Dealing, these two exceptions to the rule, are to encourage the creation of new knowledge, the exchange of ideas, as well as freedom of expression. They are there for the benefit of public interest. They give users a certain limited right to use copyrighted works without asking for permission or paying royalties to copyright owners.

You may well have a case for using in an image under Fair Use & Fair Dealing, but are you willing to stand up to a legal threat with your argument, or even go all the way to court? For the majority of small business and personal bloggers, I’m assuming the answer is no. I certainly wouldn’t/couldn’t become an expert on the depths and intricacies of copyright law in order defend myself properly.

The Moral of the Story

Unless you are planning on seriously studying copyright law; are willing to be looking over your shoulder for years to come; have arguments prepared for every potentially restricted image you use…

  1. Create your own images
  2. Pay for your images
  3. Use websites that clearly state that their images are free for anyone to use, modify and redistribute, such as these:
Each photo clearly lists the license it’s covered by, plus what you must do to satisfy the license, such as attribute the photo properly
What better way to search for free images than on the Creative Commons website.
Some rights reserved:
“Attribution — You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.”
Each image has its own specifications for re-use, but they are clearly identifiable and understandable.

From their license page:
“You are free to adapt this work, use this work for commercial purposes and to use without attributing the original author”
From their policies page:
“These images are free to use for anything you want: non-profit, commercial, business, print, web, screen, film, or anything else.  You are not required to credit my name or this site.  Basically, you can treat the images as if they were in the public domain.”
From Free Images’ user agreement:
“You may download and store only the images you plan to use as materials for the creation of a project, website or publication”
Uses Creative Commons licenses and usually requires an attribution link. Each image has different requirements but are clearly displayed.
From their policies page:
“Any photos/pictures posted by the author “freephotosbank” are free to use as long as you are using them for a website, book, magazine, etc… any photos/pictures posted by other authors remain their property and it is their decision to license the photo to you”

If you, dear readers, use other websites that provide a great range of completely free images, I’m sure we’d all appreciate you sharing them in the comments section.

Still, do your best to create your own

If possible, though, the best method by far is to create your own images. Photoshop and Illustrator are amazing programs for creating one-of-a-kind images. Digital photography is also incredibly fun and rewarding. And how nice do images look without the distracting and often ill-themes attribution links?

Be open about your image policy; don’t leave people guessing. If you’re willing, allow people to use and publish your photography in return for an attribution. This is an amazing SEO technique; your images, if good enough, can spread like wildfire across the web. Ensure that:

  • You make sure EXIF data is correct on all your photos
  • Optimise all image filenames for Google image search results
  • Make your images universally appealing

And use Google’s image search facility to track down where it’s gone. If people have not given you an attribution link, then feel free to contact them. But please, be nice about it, I’m sure you’ll get a pleasant response, and maybe even make acquaintances along the way.

Richard Eaves
Richard Eaves is a Digital Marketing Specialist for Smart Traffic. He developed a passion for SEO while working as a webmaster for some well-known high street companies. His particular specialities are technical onsite SEO and content development.

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