Finding Legal Images for Your Posts

by Mike Nichols

gavel-creationcImages can really enhance the appearance of your posts and pages. They are also very helpful when you are writing something on a particular subject, such as a tutorial, and need illustrations to help the reader better understand what you are writing about.

Most internet users believe that if if an image is on the internet, it’s fair game for them to copy and use as they want. That’s simply untrue. Almost everything on the internet is covered by some sort of copyright law that must be taken into consideration before you use the material you find.

So how do you find images for your articles? And how do you know if you can use it under the copyright laws?

This article gives you many sources of free images, as well as discussing the copyright laws for their use.

Finding images with Google’s image search

The most obvious way to find images is through Google image search. Depending on the search terms, you may find dozens of images suitable for your article. But watch out for copyright: Google doesn’t discern between copyrighted and fair use images, so you have to use a little judgement of your own.

Most clip-art libraries allow free, legal use, and if they don’t they will have their name on the image somewhere. Other images you have to be more careful with. If it’s from an educational or government institution you’re good to go. But if it’s from other sources, you will have to decide whether you can use it or not.

The safest practice is not to use Google image search at all. Rather, the best use of Google is to find sources of images that you can be sure are legal to use by using search terms like “free images,” “free photos,” or “free clip-art.”

Sources of free, legal images

There are many alternatives to Google image search for royalty-free, conditional use, and fair use images. Between everystockphoto, stock.xchng and photogen I have found many of the images I use in my articles (and also in the multimedia box on my other site). Flikr Creative Commons is another great source. Uncle Sam’s Photos and the Library of Congress are repositories of government images that are completely copyright-free.

The only problem with these sites is that they offer literally thousands of images. You have to choose your search terms very carefully to cut down on the number of images you have to go through to get the one you want.

Clip art sites generally are organized into categories, which make searching easier. Some of the better sites are iCLIPART.com, 1clipart and Barry’s Clipart Server.

Copyright, conditional use, Creative Commons, and fair use

Copyright law keeps platoons of lawyers in $2000 suits, so it’s impossible to cover copyright rules fully here. But there are some basic principles that you can use to determine if an image is copyrighted:

1. Copyright covers creative work that the creator 1) has spent some time on, 2) has not copied someone else’s work, 3) is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, and 4) is more creative than the telephone book’s white pages. The quality of the work has no bearing on its being copyrightable. These points cover many of the images you will find on the internet, especially images found with Google image search. For more information on copyright, visit the Stanford Copyright Basics FAQ. The best thing to do is to consider everything copyrighted unless you know it’s usable under the fair use laws, or the copyright user allows you to use it (see below).

2. Many royalty-free, conditional use images can be found on the internet with services like everystockphoto.com and others listed above. “Conditional use” means there are some strings attached to the use of the image. Most in this category only require you to credit the image with the creator’s name.

This can take the form of a caption below the image or a credit at the end of your post or page. Rotating images in the multimedia box involve a little more work. You must use the “Define Image Alt Tags and Links” in Design Options > Multimedia Box to credit the creator of the image. These credits are displayed when you hover your cursor over the image in the multimedia box.

3. Creative Commons licenses vary with the creator. The license can be of four types: attribution, share alike, noncommercial, and no derivative works. Most images are licensed under the attribution type, which lets others copy, distribute, display and use the copyrighted work, but only if they give credit the way the creator requests — mostly just by crediting the creator of the image. The majority of the images in the Flikr Creative Commons section are of this type.

However, be sure to read the fine print so you are crediting the creator in the way they want. To learn more about Creative Commons licenses, go to the Creative Commons licenses page.

4. Fair use
Fair use is a copyright principle based on the belief that the public is entitled to freely use portions of copyrighted materials for purposes of commentary and criticism. You also can use material created before about 1928 freely under the fair use laws.

Fair use is a very cloudy subject, because the copyright law has only guidelines that must be interpreted for each use of copyrighted material. And if the copyright owner disagrees with your interpretation of the fair use laws, they can take you to court.

For example, if your post is a commentary on Andy Warhol’s artwork, you probably can use images of his paintings under the fair use rules. And you can use illustrations from a 19th century book any way you want. But if your post is about birds and you use the photos of a nature photographer you found on the internet, then this is likely not fair use and you can be sued for using them.

Most screenshots of portions of a site can be considered fair use. Using the full screen is a little iffy. I use many screenshots in my tutorials and am completely within the fair use laws.

Be careful of using an image under what you think are the fair use laws. You should thoroughly acquaint yourself with the rules found on the Stanford Fair Use site when you want to use a copyrighted image as fair use.

5. Government and educational institution sources of images are fair game, since they by law must be freely available to the public and cannot be copyrighted, charged for, or restricted. So the images you find at Uncle Sam’s Photos or the Library of Congress can be used in any way you want.

I hope this article helps you find the images you want and helps you understand how or whether you can use them. Remember that your comments are always welcome, and that you can contact me directly by email by clicking on the “Contact” button in the navigation bar.

Image by creationc

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