The Ethics of Using Pictures Off the Web

When I was growing up, I did a lot of research using the family set of encyclopedias on the bookshelf. These days we are just as likely to do our research online. It’s not hard at all to find written information about your topic, but what if you also want to see a picture?

For that, many folks go to Google Images and conduct another search. That often yields good results. But have you ever noticed more than one instance of the same picture from different web sites? Why is that?

It could be because more than one person purchased or licensed the same image from a stock photography service’s web site for their own use. That’s fine. It’s just as likely, however, that the picture was copied off the web—that is, pirated.

Are You Guilty?

When Google indexes web content, it doesn’t check whether that content is copyrighted. There is a disclaimer when you click an image on the search results page that “This image may be subject to copyright,” but that’s as far as it goes. If you save an image from another web site to your own computer and then use it for your own purposes without permission, you may very well be violating copyright restrictions. Unless you’re invited for a “free download,” the images are likely protected by some sort of intellectual property rights. Just because an image turns up on a search results page doesn’t mean it’s available for anyone else to copy and use freely as they please. The images are not necessarily in the “public domain”—so copying and using them for your own purposes is unethical and probably illegal.

Unless you want to encourage people to use and distribute your own work for free, it’s wise to be careful about posting original images on your web sites or blogs, as you never know where they’ll end up. Many folks embed a watermark or a copyright tagline right on their images, so that if they do show up in search results, potential pirates can see that the work is protected.

Licensing Terms

So you really have only a few choices. You could create your own original images and protect them, or gain permission from the owners, or purchase usage rights for images from a stock image provider. Licensed images are usually reasonably priced, and they are available in various sizes and resolutions for print or web—something you can’t count on with pirated images, which may lead to substandard visuals (for example, in the case of using a pirated image off the web for a print piece, where the resolution is too low to look professional in a print publication).

What do I mean by “usage rights”? Stock image providers provide their images under various licensing options, all of which start with a basic purchase price. You’re purchasing a license to use, not a license to own; the image is still not “yours.” Additionally, some images are “rights managed,” where you’re allowed a one-time use or “royalty per use,” and an additional use requires an additional license. Other images are “royalty free”, with either standard licenses, where you have the right for limited usage with few restrictions (for example, up to 500,000 impressions), or higher-priced “extended” licenses for unlimited usage with virtually no restrictions.

The point I’m making is that images on the web are not free for the taking, just because you know how to “save image as.” Viewing them online may help your research, but unless you’ve purchased them or have the owner’s permission, best to view them and then leave them alone. Remember, the person who produced those images may depend on the income their work produces—please support them by appropriate purchases, and avoid pirating.

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