The Proper Use and Handling of Internet Images

Posted on June 1, 2016


 photo Island Bridge_zps7libavon.jpg
Lenny K Photography via Compfight cc

A CYA item of prime importance to writers and particularly, publishers using images in their online posts is the question of what is the legally safe approach to including them. The obvious matter has to do with avoiding intended and unintended improper uses of copyrighted materials – in this case, usually photos, but conceivably also illustrations or artwork.

The consequence of mishandling this aspect of content creation and publication can be litigation (lawsuits for those of you in Rio Linda) directed at you or your publisher, the basis of the cause of action being copyright infringement.

First, let’s look at the definition of copyright as it applies here. Copyright is a federal law of the United States that protects original works of authorship. A work of authorship includes literary, written, dramatic, artistic, musical and certain other types of works. Columns, articles, reports, commentaries and blogs are understood to be included in the scope of activities that copyrighted material is protected within.

In certain instances, the Copyright Act will outright prohibit you from using a copyrighted original work of authorship (without express permission), whether it be something someone has recorded, painted, written or photographed. For our purposes, we want to be well versed in what the exceptions under the law are and how they specifically apply to what we are doing as writers within the context of news coverage and opinion as well as what we write outside of that context. Another way of describing it is “what are the loopholes?”

The exceptions to the general rules and prohibitions against unauthorized use of ‘original works of authorship’, are found in Section 107 of the Copyright Act. They are referred to commonly as provisions of the ‘Fair Use Doctrine’. This portion of the act states:

“the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phono records or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.
In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; the nature of the copyrighted work; the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.”

What does the above mean in practical terms? It means, generally speaking, that you normally may not use copyrighted work without specific authorization, but if you are using it solely to support news reporting, news commentary, social commentary, criticism, satire, academic scholarship, educational material or as a component of scientific research, you are safely within the boundaries of ‘Fair Use’ and Section 107 of the Copyright Act.

As we will see, the mechanics of this are somewhat more nuanced. The question I imagine you might be asking, is where could we get in trouble using an existing image on the internet?

An example would be if you were writing an article about a personal interest or hobby, expressing your own viewpoint and it had little if nothing to do with news reporting, news commentary, social commentary, criticism, satire, academic scholarship or educational material. You found a nice photo of a landscape or a still image of the countryside or a building, or a flower arrangement – etc. I think most people know artistic photography when they see it, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart.

In this circumstance, best and legally sound practice dictates finding a stock image available for purchase of the license to use. The same applies to artwork. I could not find the right image that I wanted as a symbol of the concept of ‘Open Rebellion’ to use as a theme image for my radio program. I found just the image I was looking for in a stock image gallery and paid the licensing house for the permanent rights to use it. I don’t have to worry about hearing from the person who created it, because I can document that I paid the licensing fee for its’ use.

That’s that. But for the bulk of what we do as ‘content curators’, in the activities of (once again) – news reporting, news commentary, social commentary, criticism, satire and academic scholarship, we are on safe ground using what can reliably be presumed to be copyrighted material for these purposes.

Even so, please pay close attention to an exception that applies even within the ‘Fair Use’ category. When you do a search on one of the internet portals for let’s say the image of a celebrity or public figure or newsmaker, there is one red flag you must keep an eye out for. If you find a thumbnail and click on it and see that it has a specific attribution to a named photographer and a licensing house, do NOT even consider using it no matter what you have read here about ‘Fair Use’.

Often times you have seen below a photo used in a mass media news report (in small letters), an attribution to the photographer. For this example let’s say “Jack Ball / Getty Images”. That should cause a siren to go off that registers the clear warning, “Don’t Touch!”. This will be an image that if you really want it bad enough, you will have to find ‘Jack Ball’s’ contact info or that of his licensing house and ask formal permission for its’ use and likely pay a fee to Getty or whoever holds or administrates to rights to it. If not, expect at best, a Cease and Desist letter from them – or at worse, a threat of a lawsuit or an actual summons. No bueno.

With reference to the above described situation, Attorney and writer Sara Hawkins, notes, “If you’re considering taking images from large agencies, they have legal teams that do nothing but look for infringing uses. There are inexpensive ways to search for images online, even if you change the file name.”

Which brings us to the next aspect of this matter – a demonstration of how this is done.

Practically speaking, if you have any reason to suspect that you might be viewing a photo on a website that has used a licensed image without attribution, and you want to play it safe, there are ways of finding out not only where the image first appeared but also if it has an ownership claim. Many times you can discover the source of the image by right clicking on it and on the drop down, choose the selection “View Image Info”. Here you will see an example of the results.

 photo Image Info Screensave_zpservyqmb7.jpg

The line automatically highlighted there, will be the web URL of the location of the image on the internet.  Another resource for this is “Google Images”. Here is a screenshot from the search window on that page:

 photo Google Reverse Image Search_zpspowjm0by.jpg

Another even more comprehensive one is ‘Tin Eye‘. What you do at Tin Eye and at Google Images is that you place the URL where you found the image in the search window and it will reveal the web page where the image first debuted on the web. You then can follow that link and see if there was an attribution like the one I proposed as ‘Jack Ball’.

 photo Tin Eye Screenshot_zpsmqtspwya.jpg

What difference does this make?  Essentially, it is difficult for someone to accuse you of taking their stuff if their stuff wasn’t marked. Like at school, kids wrote their names on their sack lunch, their textbooks and put a name label in their sweaters. A preponderance of innocence attaches itself to the excuse that “I didn’t know anyone was laying claim to it.” It’s not entirely bulletproof, but it’s reasonably so.

Aside from this, and on a positive note, there is a wealth of resources out there if you don’t specifically need the picture of a celebrity, politician or newsmaker. Flickr has a filtered search option for Creative Commons images. Creative Commons itself is a destination for unlicensed and public domain images. If you are more ambitious than I am, you can also get plugins for your browser and you can learn more about them here.

Google also has a filter for CC images (which can be searched within the Creative Commons site) and there are many, many others such as Compfight, Car PicturesCC,,, – just to name some examples. Compfight has a great gallery of free stock images. A quick caveat. When you examine the image you like on these sites, they may include some conditions regarding attribution requested and specifics on what type of use the creator of the photo is allowing. Be sure to note and to observe them.

Additionally, if you are writing an article about government, one of the federal agencies – maybe even a report on a NASA mission, any image the government has published a photo of is public domain. Use ‘Public Domain’ as a search term as well. There you will find search results where the images have fallen out of the copyright window and are completely up for grabs.

Of course I would be remiss in not stating a source that may be hidden in plain sight. You can get custom images and add a little adventure to your life by going out and taking your own photos or recruiting a friend or family member to do so. I wrote about the Rolling Stones‘ Zip Code Tour concert in San Diego last May, and I included photos I took at the concert.

Rolling Stones Zip Code 92101 photo Stones Petco_zpscmxmg2j3.jpg

Another tip for writers that most of us have never considered, are those function buttons on your computer keyboard. While you are watching a video you can pause the video at the spot where you want to capture a still image and hit the Function + Prtsc keys and capture a printscreen or ‘screenshot’. Then you open a photo / image editor (I typically use ‘Paint‘) and crop the image you want, and do any other editing you wish and then save it as a .jpeg file and send it to the folder you keep images you want to upload to your articles.

Video stills from a printscreen are completely legal without any question, so if you see something roll by that catches your eye on that YouTube video or on a C-Span playback – grab it!  If you need a photo of a political figure, look for videos of public speaking events and press conferences.

Be sure to catch the subject making an awful looking expression. Those are the best.