Finding images on the web

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Finding and using imagery legally – a handy guide

You’re working on your company website, creating a piece of print collateral for your business or updating your blog. You run a quick web search, and within a few minutes, find the perfect image to illustrate your message. What do you do? Right-click, save it to your desktop and drop it into your design?

But where does that image come from? Who owns the copyright? And how likely are they to come looking for you?


A search can take you to the website where an image is hosted, but it may not be the place where the image originated. The hosting website may have obtained the image from another website, and so on. The name and contact details of the original copyright holder may not be visible.

So can you just use it? Who would ever know? There are a few good reasons why this isn’t a good idea.

1.    Copyright

The image you have chosen belongs to someone – either the photographer/ artist who made it, or a third party who owns the copyright. Copyright law gives the owner the right to control use of their image.  Many copyright owners want their image to be used and seen. However there may be restrictions on how, when or where the image may be used, or the image may have been licensed for exclusive use to someone else.

2.    Resolution

An image you have obtained off the web using the “right-click-and-save” method is likely to be quite small and of website resolution. If you try to use it in a bigger format, or print it, it is very likely to blur and pixelate. Licencing an image through a photo library will allow you to choose the right resolution you need for your project.

3.    Risk

If that sounds complicated, and you’re tempted to just download an image you have found on the web and use it without looking for the copyright holder, bear in mind that there are a number of sophisticated image-scanning services which scour the web looking for unlicensed imagery. You may well be caught and contacted to pay for your use of the image.  The costs may include not only the financial cost (which is likely to be more than what it would have cost to properly license the image in the first place), but also the cost of negative publicity for you or your company.  Also, if there are people in the image, or clearly identifiable products or landmarks, there may be additional issues with model or property releases.

So how do you find images you can legally use? Here are a number of useful tips.

1.    Know the provenance of your images

Make sure you know where the images on your website or print collateral come from. If a third-party designer, employee, contractor or intern designed and developed your company’s materials, it is your responsibility to make sure that all the images they have used are correctly licensed. If the images are not licensed, the liability falls on the end client. You should also not assume that a designer or image provider will contact you if a time-limited license expires. Make sure that any licenses purchased on your behalf name your company as the end client and that you have records of them.

2.    Contact the image owner directly

If you can ascertain who created the image, or who holds the copyright, you can contact them and negotiate licensing that suits both parties. Make sure that any licence you obtain this way has the necessary model and property releases.

3.    Use an image library

Companies like Getty Images and iStock do the work for you. Their images have model and property releases, and they usually have clear, easy-to-understand licensing agreements, so you can license the right image, in the right size, with the correct usage for your needs. No headaches, no unexpected legal risk. You will find more detailed information on the different types of licensing agreements here, and if you would like to talk to someone about it, feel free to contact us.

Read more articles about copyright and image licensing

How to: stay on the right side of copyright law

The power of the famous face

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