Copyright consciousness: Picking photographs for your website and social media
If you’re promoting something online, chances are you want it to be visually appealing. Often, this involves using a photograph – thankfully, the internet is full of great pictures that are just a click away.
But before you start picking and posting pictures left and right, it’s worth taking some time to consider copyright.
I have seen too many unfortunate cases, (such as this one) where small businesses have been hit with legal action due to their use of copyright protected images on their websites, blogs and social media accounts. Taking just a little time to get the appropriate permission for the pictures you’re posting can save you a whole lot of headache (and potential legal trouble) down the road.
Please note: I’m no authority on copyright law and this is not an exhaustive overview of how the system works. I’m just speaking from my 10 years of experience in the stock photography industry. For more information on copyright you can look over the policies for services like Facebook and Instagram, read about the creative commons, or find plenty more information online. Another good source of information is the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.
There are two main ways to reduce the likelihood of your posts violating copyright:
Use your own photos
One way to make sure you have the proper permission to post a photo to your website or social media accounts is by taking it yourself. Generally, if you’ve created the image, you are the copyright holder and can use it as you wish.
Do keep in mind, though, that there can be legal restrictions on the use of a photo even if you’re the one who took it. Certain buildings are protected and many brands, products and logos are also subject to copyright if they’re visible and prominent in your picture.
Post someone else’s material with proper permission
Taking and using your own pictures isn’t always an option or is simply too much of a hassle to be worth it. That’s fine! There are countless pictures created specifically for people like you to use for projects like yours. And as long as you have the proper permission, there won’t be an issue.
But what is the proper permission? In short, you need the photograph’s copyright holder to authorize your use of the picture. Getting it in writing is almost always the best option.
Usually, this takes the form of a licence. When you purchase an image from a stock photography agency, you get a licence that outlines how you can use it. Free images can come with these licences as well. For example, my monthly email newsletter includes a selection of free stock photos alongside a licence to use them. Creative commons stock collections also offer their images with a licence that is usually a form of a creative commons agreement.
Something to note with free stock services, though, is that you are taking the word of the person that uploaded the image that they are the copyright holder for the image. It is possible that they simply found the image elsewhere and have posted it to a creative commons service without the authority to do so. Unfortunately, this means that anyone who uses the image could be subject to legal action from the actual copyright holder.
Discretion is important, but it’s not as scary as it sounds. If you have a license and use the photograph within the terms of the agreement, everything should go smoothly.
What if I just credit the photographer?
It’s so easy to find an image and post it to a social media account while tagging the creator. In fact, there are apps that can do it for you! Isn’t that enough?
In terms of copyright, no, attribution is not enough - unless you have a licence that says so. If you simply repost someone’s image without permission, you can still be subject to legal action even if you have clearly stated that the picture isn’t yours and have given credit to the creator.
If you see a piece of great content and want to use it, ask the creator and respect their response. Again, it’s important to make sure that they’re the actual copyright holder if you are receiving permission to use the photograph. If it’s just a picture they found online, their permission to use it means nothing.
If you ask someone if you can use their photograph and they don’t respond or refuse then you do not have permission and should not use it.
Why does this matter?
You’re attaching your brand or personal name to the content you post. This is what the public sees and what shapes their perception of you and your brand. Even if a situation doesn’t progress to the point of legal action, having a photographer commenting on your posts to say that you stole their picture can be incredibly damaging to your or your businesses image. Obviously, you want the visuals you post to be high quality, but being labelled a thief just isn’t a good look.
Making a conscious effort to respect copyright, on the other hand, can be a great way to establish connections with content creators. If you ask for permission to use someone’s visuals on your page they’re going to respect you a whole lot more than if you used it under the assumption that they’d be fine with you doing so. Besides, even if they don’t give you permission to use the image, they might be able to point you in the direction of something else that suits your needs.
Conclusion: If you copy, copy right
Taking a moment to confirm that you can legally post a photograph is easy and doing so save you or your business from bad press and legal trouble.
When in doubt, ask for permission. Don’t have permission? Don’t post. There are so many great resources out there that you’ll be able to find an image that suits your needs without landing you in hot water.