Can I use that Image? Image Usage Rights are Not Created Equal

(Last Updated On: April 3, 2020)

One of the most frequently asked questions a photographer receives revolves around the use of images found online.

In this age of ubiquitous pictures floated around on social media apps, available through numerous web sites, or shared through links, likes, pins and tweets, it can be difficult to understand the archaic ins and outs of copyright laws.

Can I use that Image? Stay Out of Copyright Trouble

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The number one rule for content found online is to NEVER assume that something you find on the web is free for you to use. Owners of creative content reserve full rights to that content, including how and where it can be used.

To use copyrighted materials ANYWHERE, including on social media, you must obtain written consent from the copyright owner to do so, except under very specific circumstances.

That permission for use is usually obtained via a commercial license. A commercial license is where the copyright owner licenses the use of their content, either directly or through an agency, usually in exchange for financial compensation, and with certain restrictions applied.

There are several common mechanisms for doing so.

Sell the rights

Sometime referred to as SR or SR-EL, the sell the rights license transfers ownership of the media exclusively to the purchaser. The original content creator has no further claim to it. The buyer becomes the new copyright owner and may use the media without restriction.

Sell the rights with time restrictions

Similar to the SR-EL license, the purchaser assumes full control of the media with two restrictions. They cannot sell the rights to the media to a third party, and they relinquish control of the media back to the original copyright holder at the end of a specified time.

Rights manages (RM)

Content is licensed for one-time use, usually restricted by geography, end use type or time frame, after which the buyer is not entitled to further usage without repurchasing the image. A pay as you use scenario.

Royalty free (RF)

License allows the user to use the content multiple times without the need to pay royalties or fees for each use. License is granted in perpetuity worldwide without further restrictions other than certain volume restrictions, which may be applied.

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The exception to all of these rules is when an image in in the Public Domain. Images in the Public Domain can be used freely without attribution to or licensing by the original creator. defines public domain as “A work … is in the public domain if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner”. Content can also enter the public domain if the copyright holder explicitly places it there.

Public Domain images may be used in derivative work meaning they may be manipulated and reused as the consumer sees fit without restrictions. Anyone can use a Public Domain image, but no one can own it.

There are many databases available to search and find images in the Public Domain, and while the lure of using an image completely free of charge may be appealing, the adage “you get what you pay for” is somewhat appropriate here.

The Creative Commons organization has established the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license as a bridge between public domain and licensed images. This mechanism allows a content creator to push their assets into the public domain with universal, non-adaptable, rights granted to the end user without restrictions or further attribution.

Using the organizations own words to describe the CC0 license, “The person who associated a work with this deed has dedicated the work to the public domain by waiving all of his or her rights to the work worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.”

The user of CC0 licensing cannot imply endorsement by the creator for anything created by use of this content, but is otherwise free to utilize the content as they wish similar to the Public Domain description.

Editorial vs. Commercial

A note affecting all images regardless of cost or license is their usage when people, private places or copyrighted subjects are included.

In such case, a model or property release must be obtained from the person depicted, the owner of the property or the copyright owner of the subject, which grants the consumer the right to use that likeness in commercial applications.

Images that contain any recognizable person, copyrighted place or subject, which does not include such a release, may only be used for editorial purposes. In this case, they may be only be used to illustrate truthful articles or broadcasts appearing in magazines, newspapers or other editorial context.

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Royalty free Limited License (RF-LL)

And finally, an agency may offer, at their discretion, a number of royalty free images free of charge. The same rules of usage as royalty free images will apply, but there is no cost to the consumer.

In many instances the appropriate model or property release will be made available, along with the added benefit of quality control restrictions applied by the agency. With the addition of an explicit license granted for use, this can be a more reliable and appealing option than images in the Public Domain.

Now that licensing is crystal clear, how do you know which restrictions apply for the image you want to use?

The easiest solution is to contact the content creator directly. NASA, the National Parks Service, the National Archives and other US government agencies have clearly defined rules and usage guidelines on their website.

Google Images is a great way to search for content you find online to track down copyrights and owners.

Search results can show if the creator has a website or will show any agencies where that image might be available for commercial or CC0 licensing. In general, if an image has a watermark applied, it is not in the Public Domain.

The best advice I can give is to work through an agency from the outset. Working with a reliable agency can help ensure the content you are finding will offer the appropriate license for use to meet your specific needs.

They can also help with clarifying the many intricacies involved with image copyright restrictions.

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