How many times have you heard someone say that “since it was on the internet it’s public domain so I can use it?” I suspect a lot. Well, in case you didn’t know, this is not true. Even if some images are available for free on the net, they are free with limits. It’s important to read the fine print to ensure that you don’t inadvertently plagiarize someone else’s work. In some cases even when you pay for an image you can still commit a violation if you use it for an other-than-intended purpose.
Graphics and images help make your website and other online real estate stand out. In fact, if you choose images that match the content it can even make the content more understandable. This is especially true when creating infographics. But, you cannot just take the graphics from any website and use them for any purpose without permission. Recent cases in the news will give you more information about this topic.
Read the Fine Print
When you download a graphic from any place on the net, whether free or paid, read the fine print. It is likely that much of what you buy or get free on the net cannot be used for producing a “logo” without buying a higher level of rights to the image. When using free images, some sites say that you cannot use it on any product for profit.
If you generally produce images or pay for the production of images, always make sure that you protect your property from copyright infringement or plagiarism. If you don’t want someone using your images, ensure that you use code in your site that prevents copying, and ensure that you state on your site that all images and content are copyrighted and cannot be used without permission. Then, if you find someone using it, immediately send them a cease and desist notice.
There are some exceptions to the basic copyright and plagiarism rules called fair use. Essentially, it’s okay to use someone else’s work if you transform it enough to make it original. The definition of transformative though, varies with different courts. Or, you simply use the idea of the image to create your own unique image.
For instance, maybe you like a black and white portrait of a baby where the colors pink are highlighted? Then you use that idea to do a family portrait. Or if you are commenting on and reporting on a story and use the image to report on the story, that is fair use.
One thing to remember is that words can be plagiarized but images cannot be. However, you can infringe on someone’s copyright when you use images without permission or outside the parameters of legal use described in the fine print of purchased images. Also, there are always exceptions to everything. Be very clear on the differences before you use any image. A great resource to look at when deciding if something is legal look at this PDF.