Writers: Images on the Internet are not your ClipArt Gallery

After the fiasco that was Cooks Source copyright infringement, it’s clearer to me while many people are making leaps ahead with online collaboration and sharing, at the same time there is a percentage of people who still don’t get words like “copyright,” “Creative Commons,” “all rights reserved,” “copyleft,” and “public domain.”

Writers*, the Internet and its images are not your ClipArt gallery.

Especially in the case of Cooks Source, an assumption was made by the writer that the material they found online was somehow “available” and could be taken, re-used, re-written and published, and including the original author’s name was enough to justify its usage.

Some people make a living publishing content and photos online. Some just enjoy it as a hobby. Some do it as a second job, hoping for something more. All of these people have the right to full control over their intellectual property’s copyright, no matter what you perceive their aim to be.

In this article, though, I want to focus on photography. While more and more people realize using words someone else has written is plagiarism, it’s not as clear to them how they can use / re-publish others’ photos in their content.

A Photo Illustrates Your Story, or A Photo is The Story?

I think the first distinction to be made is between a picture illustrating or visually decorating content, and a picture as the story. In the first case, the picture helps you, the writer, to illustrate your story to the reader through visual clues. People like pictures, it breaks up text, and it gives them different focal points. In the second case, the picture is the reason for the story. It’s news, a point, a counterpoint, or the basis for a discussion.

Example: this picture of gelato.

In the first case (a picture illustrates a story): the writer could decide to use the picture in a story talking about gelato, about summer in Italy, about ice cream even. They use the photo like clip art – to punctuate a textual story with visual elements.

In the second case, an article could be written with reference to the author’s original blog post where the picture appeared. Additional details like the original author’s name & link, point of view, perhaps even a small excerpt is incorporated into the story (not only a credit at the end) as the writer uses the author and her photo as a point of reference and source, and as a key component to the story the writer is currently telling that is related to the original author’s content.

Neither of these editorial approaches is more correct than the other. Most of the photos on When I Have Time are used in the first case, as they help illustrate my story, but they are not the story. Often copyright owners find more gratification from the second case – if my photo is your story, most likely I am getting publicity, interest, and hopefully credibility and traffic from its inclusion.

In both cases, the writer needs permission from the copyright holder to use their photo.

Case #1 actually happened to me and this particular photo, and it was included in a post as an visual without my permission. I feel no need to name the site as we rectified the situation cordially and they were very professional. But it became even clearer to me that the assumptions some writers are working on need to be set straight.

Respect Image Copyright

If there’s a watermark on the photo, you can bet the photographer cares about how that photo is republished and used. Even if there’s no watermark, there is copyright on the photo! {Read up on a Guide to Copyright and Creative Commons if intellectual property rights are fuzzy to you} If a photo is available for Creative Commons usage, the author will declare it somewhere in an easy-to-find place like their site sidebar, on their About page, or directly under the photo.

If you can’t find Creative Commons license information at first glance, don’t assume that photo is available for the taking. Assume the exact opposite. It’s not available, for any usage, and you should write the copyright holder for permission. When in doubt? Send the photographer an email!

Proper Usage and Crediting a Photo

If you find a photo available for usage that is Creative Commons, its license dictates how the photo can be used, modified and attributed. If you’re not sure your usage is ok, ask the photographer! Ask!

Some tips for proper usage and crediting a photo:

  • Did I mention ask permission? When in doubt, ask. This step cannot be overlooked.
  • You credit the name, but don’t give a link. A link is not required by law, but it is the Internet. Why not share the love back?
  • Make sure you insert the link and credit before the post has been published (so all RSS readers see the link).
  • Never put your own logo or watermark on the photo unless you have explicit permission to modify the photo (again, ask!).
  • If the photo you’re using is Creative Commons, drop the author a line after the fact to see where their photo has been given new life – who knows, you may gain another reader or even an advocate.

Build a Relationship with your ClipArt generator, the Photographer

If you’re a site owner, or a community site writer, why not think of other ways to approach photographers so that they will be more interested in your request to republish their all-rights-reserved photos?

  • Approach the photographer and offer to do a profile on your site about the photographer in exchange for a certain number of photos (i.e., 5) for other blog posts.
  • Offer to pay the photographer (innovative, I know).
  • Offer something else in exchange (perhaps you can barter its usage).
  • Ask if they have any photos with Creative Commons licenses or available on stock photography sites – perhaps you’ll find a substitute photo that can be purchased cheaply or can be used with Creative Commons.

Are you a writer looking for images? Start with Flickr’s search for Creative Commons images licensed for commercial use.

Do you have any tips for writers on correctly finding and using images on the Internet?

If you’re a photographer, what would you prefer writers offered you, other than money, for using your photos?

*I use the term “writers” in this case to mean both journalists and bloggers – I have seen cases where both have overlooked copyright.

Photo credit: me, Sara Rosso

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Director of Product Marketing @ HubSpot. Early hire @ Automattic / WordPress.com. Founder World Nutella Day. MBA Alumni Advisory Board @ Santa Clara University.

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