Using images online without permission is not as prevalent as you might think, purely because the law offers image owners substantial protection against theft, unauthorised use, or copyright infringement. Copyright applies to photographs, drawings, digital designs and even video content. As long as you can prove the image belongs to you, nobody has the right to use it without your expressed permission.
Can I use images online without permission?
If you want to use photographs, images or illustrations then you will find they are generally protected by copyright, unless they expressly state that the image is copyright-free. If it is then you can use it as you wish or within certain restrictions. However, in the majority of cases, you either have to pay for a licence to use an image or ask the owner’s permission.
The creator of the image is the person who owns the copyright on it. Do not assume that just because there is no copyright symbol on an image that it is copyright-free. It is not a requirement to mark all copyrighted images with the © symbol. You may find that an image has more than one copyright owner, so again, do not assume that just because you have permission from one copyright holder that you immediately have the right to use the image. You may need to seek permission from the other copyright holders too.
Using stock photos and image libraries
Many photos and images you will see on the internet belong to photo or stock libraries. These either own the copyright of a picture directly or offer it for use via a licencing agreement with the creator of the image. You will find that how you use a photo-stock image is often limited under the terms of the library’s agreement policy, as well as being a copyrighted image. These are not part of copyright law, but infringing them may mean that the library removes the image from your site, or commences legal proceedings for breach of contract.
Using out-of-copyright images
Copyright on images usually lasts for the lifetime of the creator, until the end of the calendar year 70 years after their death. However, just because a picture is old does not mean it is out of copyright and can be freely used. Copyright for particular images may pass to the creator’s estate or may be covered in other legislation.
I do not know who owns the image, how do I get permission to use it?
Again, do not assume that just because you cannot find out who owns an image that you can then use it online with impunity. If it is a modern image there is a good chance that someone will recognise the image and inform the original creator. If you have done everything you can to find the owner of an image without success you can apply for an orphan works licence from the IPO. This licence lets people use orphan copyright images for both commercial and non-commercial purposes under a licence agreement.
With billions of digital images available the internet, it is tempting to assume that ‘borrowing’ an image for your own website will go unnoticed and will not be a problem. However, remember that image has been created by someone, and is, therefore, their property.
At best, a breach of copyright by using someone else’s image without their permission will result in a request that you credit the original creator, or take the image down. At worst, you could face a costly legal battle.
Find out more
If you would like any help or support then visit our dedicated Intellectual Property pages or contact our expert team.