Can I Use That Photo I Found Online?

November 14, 2018 by Evan Braun


The internet makes it really easy for us to find pictures. Just hop on over to Google, run an image search for whatever you heart desires, and your screen will invariably fill up with hundreds, thousands, millions of photos just perfect for that PowerPoint presentation, blog post, webpage, or book cover. All you have to do is right-click your mouse, save the image to your computer, and you’re good to go.

Right?

Wrong.

People do this all the time, but it’s still… well, theft.

“Hold the phone,” you say. “How can this be theft? Isn’t this a bit like eating a single strawberry from a vast field of strawberries? There’s no harm in it. There’s no victim. Also, how can it be theft if it’s so easy? If someone leaves their front door wide open, as well as the garage door, the back door, and every window, isn’t that just an invitation to take something?”

This all may sound perfectly logical. It’s also the same justification people use to get away with all sorts of other copyright infringement—such as plagiarism. Although they’re breaking the law, it doesn’t feel illicit. Just turn on your computer, click your mouse a few times, and tada! It’s not like throwing a brick through the window of your favourite store.

In fact, most people don’t even know they’re doing something wrong. Indeed, there’s a reason I wrote a whole blog post about The Accidental Plagiarist.

When people think of copyright infringement, they think of the really blatant cases, of people stealing a person’s book, changing the title and putting their own name on it. In real life, infringement is usually more subtle. Someone will take a paragraph here or there, pass off another person’s quote as their own. As an editor, I have to keep both eyes wide open to this sort of thing. It’s depressingly common.

Just about everyone will recognize that taking someone else’s words is a form of copyright infringement. But what about pictures?

Photography is an artform, so it receives the same legal protections that writing does. The same applies, of course, to graphics, logos, drawings, painting, digital animations, etc. Also, it’s important to remember that copyright isn’t something you have to apply for or write down. Copyright protections are automatic. The moment you make something, post it, display it, whatever you want to do with it, it’s protected. It’s yours and other people aren’t just allowed to swoop in and use it however they want.

Intuitively, this makes sense. If you post a family photo to Facebook, you should have a reasonable expectation that some company isn’t going to download that photo without paying for it or acknowledging you and use it in an advertisement.

By the way, true story. Seriously, go read about that case. It will send shivers up your spine and seriously make you reconsider your photo-posting habits.

I also personally know of a case where a self-published author decided to use a photo on their book cover they found online. It was a photo of a pretty girl. Indeed, it was a photo of Anne Hathaway. They thought they wouldn’t get busted. They did.

Even if you don’t realize what you’re doing is wrong, you could end up paying a steep fine. A blog I wrote for a few years ago used to ask all its writers to include pictures with their monthly blog posts. That seemed easy enough. Adding pictures definitely made the blog look more vibrant, and the blog got more clicks, but most of those pictures were taken from Google image searches without permission.

One day, the blog administrators put down a policy forbidding the use of unauthorized images. There had been a case in the U.S. where a blog that had been following the same practice got fined when the owner of one of the images went after them in court. It was a five-figure fine.

Wanting to get more clicks simply isn’t worth that sort of risk.

Maybe you’re writing a non-fiction book, and you’d like to use some graphics you found online for the interior. Or maybe you downloaded a photo from a local news site that fits one of your chapters.

Don’t do it. Get permission. Purchase a license. You never know what could happen.

In summary, if you want to use a picture that someone else made, ask permission. It could save you a mountain of trouble down the line. The risk is never worth the reward.

About this Contributor

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Small_headshot_evan_braun

Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.